Fire survivor describes near death ordeal

January 31, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 31 – When Kennedy Mahiva went into the Nakumatt Downtown supermarket to buy a gas cooker for his home use on Wednesday, he did not know that that would be the beginning of painful and agonising moments he would have to face in the days ahead.

Mr Mahiva says he was upstairs in the supermarket that is located at the junction of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue for a few minutes, when all of a sudden he heard a loud explosion.

“It was almost deafening and definitely scary and all of a sudden, the place, which is like a hole, was full of smoke. We couldn’t go downstairs and all the smoke was coming up,” he explains.

Confusion, he says reigned as the nearly 15 people in the room realised they were trapped upstairs. Mr Mahiva says a Nakumatt shop attendant, who was with them started speaking incoherently and went through a door. They all followed him.

“We thought he was leading us to an escape route but he led us into a dark store, which was full of drums. We tried to ask him if there was any way out but he was not even talking,” he says.

At that time, Mr Mahiva noticed a ventilation opening with a wooden frame on the roof and urged the attendant (who was standing on two drums) to kick it in to see whether it would give way and give them an avenue out of the dark room that was quickly filling with choking smoke.

The employee kicked the frame and it broke. And so the attendant was able to get through the hole onto the roof and jumped out; so did another man behind him.

Mr Mahiva was the third in line and just as he was about to get out, a woman who was holding a baby in her arms pleaded with him to take her one-and-a-half year old son with him.

With guilt written all over his face, the survivor says he tried to get out holding the boy but couldn’t manage and told the lady so. This is because the ventilation hole led to the rooftop of Woolworths House (which housed Nakumatt Downtown) from where anyone would have to look for ingenious ways to get down and off the building, which by now had one corner – blazing hot.

“The rest were afraid to go through the opening. I think they were probably waiting to be rescued. I don’t think anyone followed me,” he says with a sad distant look in his eyes.

“But I managed. Although I was not seeing anything and I was getting choked by the smoke. I was using my hands to feel the roof and I did make it to the end (of the roof),” he says, recounting his four minutes of daring.

Luck must have been on his side because as he groped blindly to find something, anything, to hold on to, his hands touched some telecom cables. He held on for dear life and swung.

“I don’t know where I landed but I found myself in a dispensary at Phoenix House,” he says of his blind fall.

He escaped with minor bruises on his arms, legs and cuts on his. Mr Mahiva also suffered head injuries, but a head scan revealed that there was no serious damage done.

“I have headaches but I am taking pain killers for it. The doctors say the pain will subside with time,” he adds.

Mr Mahiva is convinced that the fire started downstairs near the loading zone as that’s where the smoke started to come from, but he cannot confirm allegations that some guards locked people in to force them to produce receipts for the things they were carrying.

“We were trapped upstairs and no one could either go up or down so I would not know what was happening there,” he emphasises.

He says they didn’t hear anyone warning them to get out of the building when the fire started, and observes that if there was an escape exit, they would all have managed to get out.

The fire tragedy that struck just before 3pm has so far claimed the lives of 23 people and 51 others have been reported missing.

The government has pledged to help with the funeral expenses, hospital bills and the post mortem costs, while Nakumatt Holdings has offered to pay for the costs of all the DNA tests that will be carried out to ascertain the identities of some of the recovered bodies that were burnt beyond recognition.


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