Night of horror as 13 die in tanker fire
Around 9.30pm on Saturday, a tanker ferrying thousands of litres of petrol from Kisumu to Busia collided head-on with a milk truck at Malanga in Gem, Siaya County.
The crash attracted the attention of Malanga villagers, who rushed to scene to rescue drivers of both vehicles who had narrowly cheated death.
But what was initially a rescue mission turned into a looting spree as boda boda riders and some villagers started delivering jerrycans to siphon petrol from the overturned tanker.
Aware of the danger the looters were exposing themselves to, the injured tanker driver attempted to stop the crowd from siphoning the highly flammable fuel.
"We exchanged words with him (driver) asking him to allow us to collect the flowing petroleum. As we were leaving, we heard a loud bang," said Ms Diana Odongo, a witness.
The driver’s pleas fell on deaf ears as crowds scrambled to open one compartment after the other. They scooped petrol as more and more people joined the party.
In total disregard of the Covid-19 containment measures and the 7pm to 4am curfew, the residents — including women and children — trooped to the accident scene in droves with the hope of striking it rich.
And in less than 30 minutes, tragedy struck as the tanker burst into a huge fireball, engulfing the entire scene and trapping the villagers.
"I was on my way home holding a 20-litre jerrycan when I heard the loud bang. Behind us was a huge fire. We had to run fast fearing for our lives as our clothes had been covered with petrol," recalls Ms Odongo.
The flames spread to nearby maize farms and things quickly got out of hand when jerrycans that had been filed with petrol fuelled the flames.
When the hellish fire was put out many hours later, at least 13 people had perished while 31 were fighting for their lives in hospitals.
Yesterday, burnt shells of the vehicles, the remains of villagers burnt beyond recognition and shocked relatives milling around captured the sombre mood at the scene.
Hell broke loose when one person reportedly opened the tanker’s compartment so they could scoop petrol faster before police arrived, leading to the explosion.
“Out of ignorance, one resident, on realising that the compartment was closed and delaying them, opened it and in the process, it caused a spark. Within no time there was an explosion,” said Gem sub-county police commander Moreso Chacha.
The death toll, he said, could rise as a majority of those who were injured immediately rushed back to the villages for fear of arrest.
“We suspect more people were injured but opted to go home because they knew they were wrong. The truck was ferrying milk to Kisumu while the oil tanker was headed to Busia when they rammed into each other at about 9.30pm,” he said.
Mr Paul Manasseh, a boda boda rider who helped to ferry the injured people to various hospitals, said a pregnant woman was among those who perished, while a young mother was burnt to death with a baby strapped on her back.
“All the women died in the fire after the explosion. We tried our best with the little resources we had to help the injured. It was a scene from hell.
“It’s unfortunate that Kenyans have refused to learn from past tragedies. Villagers yet again rushed to the scene of the accident and started siphoning fuel in total disregard of the Covid-19 containment measures and the curfew,” he added.
The fire, which burnt for hours, was eventually managed by a fire engine from Busia County.
“We could not get a fire engine from Siaya since it’s in Nairobi for repairs. We had to get help from Busia,” said Mr Chacha.
Horror-struck villagers used wheel barrows to move dead bodies from the accident scene.
Some families desperately tried to trace their loved ones, who could not be located in nearby hospitals.
At various hospitals, survivors lay in pain as they recounted the events that preceded the incident; with many, including children, having suffered more than 80 per cent burns.
The incident happened just four kilometres from Sidindi market, another spot where on July 13, 1998, a tanker overturned and burst into flames during a scramble by villagers to scoop oil. The incident left 39 people dead and about a dozen others nursing injuries.