Burnt beyond recognition: Night of horror as tanker claims lives
By Harold Odhiambo and Olivia Odhiambo
| July 18th 2021
Three women, one of them seven months pregnant, were among the victims of the Saturday night oil tanker fire that killed 14 near Yala in Siaya County.
Several other people who attempted to siphon fuel from the tanker had serious burns after it burst into flames, engulfing them.
Grief engulfed Malanga village in Gem, as residents struggled to come to terms with the incident. Twelve of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition. One person later died in hospital last evening. Families struggled to find out the fate of missing kin.
Only one body could be identified. Some 24 survivors were hospitalised in nearby facilities while others were transferred to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu.
Some relatives of those still missing burst into tears, presuming them to be among those who perished.
The depth of the locals’ devastation was evident at the scene of the accident, with charred human bones covered with leaves next to the shell of the fuel tanker.
Burnt clothes, shoes and the jerrycans they were using lay metres away from the tanker. Burnt grass covering a large area indicating the painful ordeal the victims of the fire went through was also evident.
Prior to the fire, residents, oblivious of the danger they were exposing themselves to, had started syphoning oil from the tanker, despite caution from its driver.
At the mortuary, families were also turned away because the bodies were burnt beyond recognition and could only be identified through DNA tests. Inconsolable families, too distraught to talk after painstakingly searching their kin with no success in all the hospitals where survivors were, burst into tears as they recalled last moments with them.
Braisy Adhiambo could not be comforted. She recalled how her sister went to the scene of the accident to witness what had happened after they heard a bang from the road.
She said they had all dashed to the road to check what was happening and found people siphoning oil from the tanker.
Although they did not join the group siphoning the oil, they stood to witness. “We were five of us. I opted to come back to the house but before I reached, I heard a loud bang and saw a ball of flame,” she recalled.
That was the last time she saw her 22-year-old sister. Three other family members sustained serious burns and were taken to Siaya County Referral Hospital.
Joseph Ouko, a resident, said they were yet to locate some of their neighbours who had also dashed into the night to siphon fuel from the tanker.
He recounted hearing a bang when he had started sleeping. “When I got out, I heard people screaming. When I went out I saw people scrambling for oil,” he said.
Ouko said the driver, who walked from the scene to engage with that of another trailer transporting milk, which had collided with the tanker, warned locals against removing the vehicle’s battery.
Joan Achieng’, another resident, recalled how her neighbour rushed to the scene of the accident but never returned home.
She said they watched from afar as huge flames engulfed the people who had gone to siphon fuel from the tanker.
“At first I thought a home was on fire. When we came out, I saw several people burning,” said Achieng’. By yesterday evening she was yet to locate her neighbour.
At the scene, several families filed missing persons reports with authorities in a temporary tent that was set up for affected residents to access help and communication from the government.
Three women and two children were reported missing.
Malanga Assistant Chief Millicent Auma, who was registering the names of missing people, said the number of those killed in the accident could be higher.
She noted that some of the bodies almost turned into ash.
Gem OCPD Mosera Chacha said the accident occurred when the tanker collided with a lorry that was ferrying milk.
“Members of the public took advantage and went to siphon the petrol as one compartment of the tanker was open. Another resident, realising the other compartment was closed and denying them the opportunity, hacked it open to enable them to siphon faster before the police could arrive. In the process, he caused the spark that ignited the fire,” said Chacha.
He said they contained the fire with the help of fire engines from Busia County. Leaders from the region, led by Gem MP Elisha Odhiambo, sent their condolences to the bereaved families but regretted the late response from authorities.
By noon yesterday, the shell of the tanker was still at the scene.
The accident brings painful memories of similar ones where scores died after attempting to siphon oil from tankers involved in accidents. In 2016, 30 people died in Naivasha after a similar incident.
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