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Huge Kenya blaze kills three and injures 280

By Dylan GAMBA, Ammu KANNAMPILLY
Kenya The fire left a trail of destruction in the Nairobi area of Embakasi.  By LUIS TATO AFP
FEB 2, 2024 LISTEN
The fire left a trail of destruction in the Nairobi area of Embakasi. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

A truck laden with gas canisters exploded in a densely populated residential area of the Kenyan capital, setting off a devastating blaze that killed three people and injured 280, officials said Friday.

The blast at what has been described as an illegal gas depot ignited a huge fireball in the Embakasi area of southeastern Nairobi, leaving a trail of destruction and sending local residents running for their lives.

Firefighters managed to bring the blaze under control by Friday morning, more than nine hours after it erupted shortly before midnight Thursday.

"We were in the house and heard a huge explosion," James Ngoge, who lives across the street from where the fire broke out, told AFP.

"The whole building was shaken by a huge tremor, it felt like it was going to collapse. At first, we didn't even know what was happening, it was like an earthquake.

"I have a business on the road that was completely destroyed."

The explosion ignited a 'huge ball of fire that spread widely', according to government spokesman Isaac Maigua Mwaura.  By LUIS TATO AFP The explosion ignited a 'huge ball of fire that spread widely', according to government spokesman Isaac Maigua Mwaura. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

Investigations were under way to determine the cause of the explosion, which media reports said was heard several kilometres (miles) away.

Government spokesman Isaac Maigua Mwaura said in a statement three Kenyans died and 280 others were rushed to hospital after the explosion ignited a "huge ball of fire that spread widely".

Embakasi, with a population of about one million people according to the 2019 census, lies 10 kilometres (six miles) from Kenya's main international airport.

'Illegal storage and filling site'

Mwaura said the inferno damaged a number of vehicles and commercial properties, including many businesses, with a garment and textile factory burned to the ground.

The blaze damaged houses, commercial properties and vehicles, according to the government spokesman.  By LUIS TATO AFP The blaze damaged houses, commercial properties and vehicles, according to the government spokesman. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

"Sadly, residential houses in the neighbourhood also caught fire, with a good number of residents still inside as it was late at night," he added.

Douglas Kanja, Deputy Inspector of Police, said a guard at the gas storage site had been arrested.

Images from the fire's aftermath showed the area littered with blackened and smoking corrugated iron sheets, charred vehicles and the burn-out remains of homes and kiosks.

Residents said they had long feared such a disaster, accusing the government of being "irresponsible" by allowing inflammable products to be stored near their homes.

The Petroleum Institute of East Africa said the explosion occurred on an "illegal LPG refilling and storage site" whose owner and some customers had been convicted and sentenced in May 2023.

Residents look on after the huge explosion and fire in the Embakasi area of Nairobi.  By SIMON MAINA AFP Residents look on after the huge explosion and fire in the Embakasi area of Nairobi. By SIMON MAINA (AFP)

Despite the convictions, it said the proprietor continued operating the the facility "without even the bare minimum safety standards and qualified LPG personnel as required by law".

Kenya's Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) also said it had denied permission three times last year for the construction of an LPG storage and filling plant at the site.

"The main reason for the rejection was failure of the designs to meet the safety distances stipulated," it said, noting "the high population density around the proposed site".

'Running and screaming'

Residents described scenes of chaos and panic after the explosion, which forced many to spend the night outside.

Many of the area's residents spent the night outside.  By Luis TATO AFP Many of the area's residents spent the night outside. By Luis TATO (AFP)

Motorcycle taxi driver Felix Kirwa told AFP he had just returned home when he heard two blasts that caused his house to shake and shattered two windows.

The father of three grabbed his youngest child -- a four-year-old boy -- and ran out of the house, losing track of his other children in the confusion.

"I didn't know where the two other children ran to until this morning when I located them, and they are safe," he said, nursing a bandaged broken leg.

Shops and home were heavily damaged.  By LUIS TATO AFP Shops and home were heavily damaged. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

Beautician Vivian Njeri, 34, said she managed to escape with injuries to her back and hands.

"We were running and screaming because there was fire all over outside," she told AFP from a tent outside a Nairobi hospital where victims were being treated.

Stella Mbithi, a roadside vegetable vendor, was serving customers when she saw the sky turn orange with flames.

"We all took off. It was chaotic because people were screaming all over and vehicles were honking horns. I fell down several times," she told AFP. "I am lucky to be alive."

In 2011, more than 100 people died in a slum in the Embakasi area when fuel leaked from a pipeline and burst into flames.

Many of the victims were burnt beyond recognition, some scorched to the bone and others to ashes.

In 2018, a blaze at Nairobi's Gikomba market killed 15 people including four children and injured at least 70.

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