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Huge 'ball of fire' kills three, injures 280 in Kenya

By Tanya WILLMER
Kenya The blaze was brought under control after about nine hours.  By Luis TATO AFP
FEB 2, 2024 LISTEN
The blaze was brought under control after about nine hours. By Luis TATO (AFP)

At least three people died and 280 were injured when a gas blast set off a huge ball of fire in a densely populated area of the Kenyan capital, officials said on Friday.

The government vowed those responsible would be held accountable after a truck laden with gas canisters exploded just before midnight Thursday in Embakasi, unleashing a trail of destruction and sending people running for their lives.

Shaken residents charged that it was a disaster in waiting because of the number of gas depots in the area, with a regional energy body saying the site where the blast occurred was being operated illegally.

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)

"The whole building was shaken by a huge tremor, it felt like it was going to collapse," James Ngoge, who lives across the street from where the fire broke out, told AFP.

"At first, we didn't even know what was happening, it was like an earthquake."

Investigations are under way to determine the cause of the explosion, which was felt several kilometres (miles) away.

'Unacceptable occurrence'

"As we call for caution and adherence to the rule of law, those culpable in this unacceptable occurrence will be held accountable," Kenya's Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua said in a statement on X.

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)

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

The inferno damaged vehicles and many businesses, with a garment and textile factory burned to the ground.

"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.

Firefighters brought the blaze under control by Friday morning, more than nine hours after it erupted.

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

Douglas Kanja, Deputy Inspector of Police, said a guard at the gas site had been arrested and investigations were ongoing.

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.

"Why do we have gas plants in the middle of estates? This is a residential area and that is a gas plant right there. And it is not one, there are several," Magdalene Kerubo, 34, told AFP.

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

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.

Map of Kenya locating its capital city Nairobi.  By Sylvie HUSSON, Sabrina BLANCHARD, Valentin GUELET AFP Map of Kenya locating its capital city Nairobi. By Sylvie HUSSON, Sabrina BLANCHARD, Valentin GUELET (AFP)

"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".

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

'Screaming all over'

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 shops.

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.

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.

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

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