MOLO, Feb 1 – At least 111 people died in Molo when an overturned petrol tanker exploded as people swarmed over it to scoop up leaking fuel in one of the country’s worst accidents, officials said Sunday.,
"Certainly this is a national tragedy. We have just been informed that more succumbed to injuries in hospitals. The total number is now 111," Internal Security Minister George Saitoti said as he inspected the scene of the deadly blaze near the Rift Valley town of Molo, 150 kilometres (95 miles) northwest of Nairobi.
Bodies charred beyond recognition were strewn across the road as emergency services struggled to cope with casualties.
The injured were rushed to hospitals all over the country. Extra body bags also had to be sent from the capital and the government made an urgent appeal for blood donations.
"Thirty-four survivors who suffered serious burns have been airlifted to Nairobi for specialised treatment," Saitoti told reporters.
According to witnesses and rescue services, the tanker overturned after being involved in an accident late Saturday.
Dozens of local people converged on the site with jerricans and other makeshift containers to siphon a few litres of fuel spewing from the wreckage into a ditch.
"I saw a crowd at the scene of the accident, then I rushed there when I heard there was fuel. I had taken the first jerrican back to my home and when I came back for the second, I heard an explosion and it was like we all caught fire. I don’t even know how I got here," 25-year-old Michael Kerich said, lying on a blanket on the floor of Rift Valley provincial hospital in Nakuru.
Some witness accounts said the fire may have been started when someone lit a cigarette.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said from the scene that the exact circumstances of the tragedy were still being investigated.
Kenya Red Cross spokesman Titus Mung’ou said: "There were many people at the scene who had gone to scoop fuel, that is when the tanker exploded. The fire seems to have been ignited by something like a matchbox."
Mung’ou said many victims were women and children.
Villagers flocked to the scene and the region’s hospitals to search body bags and casualty wards for their missing loved ones.
"I have lost three sons, my fourth and last one was admitted in this hospital with serious injuries. One of those who died was due to start secondary school next week," said John Sang outside the hospital.
Such accidents are relatively frequent in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state, but the carnage near Molo was the worst such disaster to hit Kenya, which has recently been affected by frequent fuel shortages.
"This is a national disaster, it is so unfortunate that we have lost many people in two tragedies in less than a week," Mr Saitoti said.
On Wednesday, a central Nairobi supermarket was completely destroyed by flames, killing at least 25 people.
Four days later, rescuers were still sifting through the rubble to look for the bodies of missing people believed to have been trapped in the inferno.
On Sunday, President Mwai Kibaki declared a week of mourning during which all celebrations will be cancelled and national flags fly at half-mast.