NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 4 – For residents of Sachang’wan, a little known village in Molo district, January 31, 2009 was a Saturday like any other when they went on with their regular daily chores.
Unknown to them though, a tanker ferrying some 50,000 litres of unleaded petrol that was headed for Juba in Southern Sudan would overturn at the stretch, about 32 kilometres west of Nakuru town and kill 123 people, disrupting the vibrant lifestyle of the residents.
Ninety one of them were burnt to death at the scene while 32 have since died in various hospitals.
And as Samson Kirui, 34, a resident of Sachang’wan puts it, this was not the first time that a lorry overturned on the busy Nakuru-Eldoret highway.
“We are used to such accidents, there are times vehicles collide and people are injured or even killed,” he said and recalled one of the most recent incidents where a lorry loaded with groceries and biscuits overturned about two kilometres from the scene of the February 7 gory accident.
“People here did not see it as an accident; they celebrated and scrambled for the goodies. Just like many other accidents before, none of them was injured. So we are used to these things,” he said.
Mr Kirui, a father of two and a trader in Nakuru is a lucky man to have survived the tragic scenario.
“I was there when the biscuits’ lorry overturned and I got many cartons which I went and sold to retailers in Nakuru and Molo. I made a lot of money, which I have saved to pay school fees for my son who is joining Form One,” he said.
Mr Kirui’s friend, Maritim Rono telephoned him at about 6pm on Saturday asking him to look for people who could buy petrol.
“I was in Molo collecting my money from debtors when I received that call, I asked him why he was talking about petrol and he told me a lorry had overturned and he had already siphoned 80-litres,” Mr Kirui told Capital News in an interview from his hospital bed at the Nakuru Provincial General Hospital.
“He asked me to get jerrycans because he had run short of them while scooping the fuel. All this time, I was cursing why I travelled to Molo because I could have siphoned as much.”
Mr Kirui bought two 20-litres empty jerrycans at a fuel station and quickly got into a matatu towards that direction.
“I kept calling Rono but he did not pick up his phone. I thought he was busy siphoning the fuel because – the first time he called me – he was at a noisy place and I could hear villagers shout at one another,” he added.
Within 30 minutes or less, the matatu was already on the highway and they met ambulances with blaring sirens and fire engines speeding towards Sachangwan direction.
“None of us in the matatu knew what had happened, but because there was no vehicle coming from that direction, we sensed there must have been a problem, but then it did not occur to me that Mr Rono and my fellow villagers were on fire until we approached the scene and saw fire balls and smoke all over,” he said.
“There were many police officers and they kept us at bay. Villagers were screaming from a distance and we could see fire-fighters battling the flames,” he said, recalling how he manoeuvred his way through and started helping those injured to ambulances and other police vehicles.
In the process, Mr Kirui sustained burns on his left arm and right thigh and was taken to the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital, where Capital News found him.
“I will be out of here soon because I sustained minor burns. I was carrying burning people from the thicket but I will never forget what I saw. My friends and relatives were burning. Many of them died. I will never get to see them,” he said.
Mr Kirui lost three of his nephews, aged between 14 and 21, who perished in the fire.
“My brother came to see me and broke the sad news to me. I am also told my aunt Chelang’at is dead and two of my brothers are missing,” he said, tears flowing freely.
His friend Mr Rono too cannot be traced.
“He could be dead. His relatives have been looking for him here (hospital), they even asked me but I told them I have not seen him,” he said.
His eyes glued to the ceiling of the ward at the hospital, Mr Kirui does not regret his trip to Molo that Saturday morning, which had turned out to be a very dark day for the residents of Sachang’wan village.
“It is by good luck that I was not at home at the time it occurred. I could have been there and today I could be no more,” he said.
Dozens of men and women have been widowed and many children orphaned following the petrol tank explosion, which has significantly reduced the population in that little village.
Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Hassan Noor Hassan said many of those killed were aged between 12 and 54 years.
“This is a national disaster, it has almost wiped out a village for no good reason,” he said.
The government has resolved to bury 98 of those burnt beyond recognition in a mass grave at the site, to avoid the DNA process which most affected families are opposed to.