I see that Wednesday’s fire at ‘Nakumatt Downtown’, one of a chain of a large supermarkets in the Central Business District of Nairobi, has reached the BBC international news pages.
I heard about it when I was at a children’s birthday so sent a text message to my husband who I knew was in a meeting in the CBD.
‘big fire in town – hope you not too near!’
The fire broke out at 3pm.
‘Actually, very near!’ came the response at 4pm.
He later told me that he was in his meeting in a high rise office space nearby, when one by one they noticed plumes of black smoke wafting past the windows. Eventually they broke off their meeting and all walked to the window to look.
When the meeting was finished, my husband walked a block or two to check out the source of the commotion. Thousands of others had had the same idea and they were swarming the area, watching as flames that were four stories high licked up into the air. They could hear loud bangs as gas bottles that were housed in the supermarket kept exploding. As numbers of spectators later became unmanageable later (the figure 10,000 was mentioned) Police had to do some serious crowd control. There were cheers as emergency vehicles arrived including police riot vans that usually use high pressure water to disperse crowds. Even though they were on the spot, I don’t think that any of the spectators really realised how serious a situation it was.
The fact that the city council fire station was only a block away from the supermarket was not enough to save it. The fire raged on for hours and the supermarket was utterly gutted. The emergency services were dogged by problems such as discovering city fire hydrants were dry and the fact that their hose pipes had holes (local tv footage made the situation look almost comic). A couple of private security firms who own their own fire trucks came and leant a hand but their was little coordination and a lot of frustration. Passers by and pedestrians were all trying to help firefighters.
The Daily Nation today said;
‘Traffic congestion, chronic water shortages and lack of coordination by different fire fighting agencies were the major obstacles. The city council’s poor equipment, training and inadequate fire stations compounded the problems.’
The fire is rumoured to have started in the supermarket’s generator room and might possibly have been caused by an electrical fault. Witnesses who escaped the store watched the lights flicker on and off then heard a huge explosion downstairs. Many rushed to the second floor to escape via upper floor windows.
Initially we believed that everyone had got out, but slowly, tragically, the newspapers are reporting stories of trapped shoppers (including mothers with children) making emergency calls from their mobile phones to loved ones. Apparently the smoke was toxic, thick and the supermarket was plunged into pitch darkness. The Red Cross quickly set up a tent on site to receive missing person enquiries. The total number of those missing has crept from four to forty. At this point no bodies have been recovered due to the instability of the supermarket shell.