NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 28 – “It’s one year now but it seems like one day because up to now I still have nightmares and the memories of that day still fresh.” Those are the words of James Nandwa, a survivor of the Nakumatt Downtown fire.
Nandwa, 47, is one of the few survivors of the Nakumatt supermarket fire tragedy that killed 27 people and up to 40 others reported missing in the inferno.
“It was like dying halfway and then coming back to life,” he remembers.
At the time of this interview, I found Nandwa doing what he does best – coaching football. From the outside, Nandwa appears in high spirits but on the inside he is a hurting man fighting hard to come to terms with the events of that dreadful day.
The father of four says he was on the first floor of the supermarket with his friend and former CEO of the Tusker team, Peter Serry who died in the blaze.
“We had just finished shopping for mattresses for some new team members when suddenly it became dark and the alarm went off,” he remembers.
He has gone for counselling thrice but he says it is still difficult for him to come to terms with what happened.
“I have nightmares every time I remember the incident. You see the fire spreading but you don’t know how you can survive. Even when I managed to get outside, I collapsed immediately and thought I was still inside,” he says with a twinge.
He says the first three months after the incident were the most difficult because as he was trying to heal from the knee and chest injuries he had sustained, his friend Serry was yet to be found.
“We were still looking for his remains and it hurts me to have lost him because all along I thought he was following me up the (escape) ladder,” he says.
He says it disturbs him because he doesn’t know how and at what point he lost track of his friend – he just knows he was following him.
“I remember his last words,” he says looking at a distance.
“He told me: “Coach we can die here let us do something. We have already let these people go but I don’t know if they have managed to escape. We must do something.”
Nandwa recalls that they had let about six women climb up the escape ladder first and when it was their turn he was the first to go. His friend was to follow, but it never happened.
“I am still struggling to forget everything but I am praising God because I am alive,” he says.
Nandwa also remembers with sadness a mother who died in the inferno as she clung to her child.
“What I remember most and haunts me is that there was a lady and a child crying for help,” he says.
“At the same time I was trying to climb up the ladder to go out. I was thinking …how can I help them and I am trying to help myself? That memory comes all the time but I believe God had a reason for me to survive. He gave me a second chance to remain in the world so I think I still have something to give in life,” he says.
Nandwa says he fractured his knee after he jumped down onto the street below from the roof of the building.
He adds that due to the smoke he inhaled, he had no sense of taste for four months.
And as the tragedy is commemorated on Thursday, Nandwa is evidently still a traumatised man.
“I am telling you this, nowadays I don’t shop. The other day I went to shop with my wife at a supermarket. I went inside and I could not handle it’. I told her to go ahead I will wait outside,” he says.
“At times I am a bit scared and if I shop, I do it at a place I know if something happens, I can go out very fast,” he adds.
He is urging the relevant authorities to ensure that supermarkets and all other buildings have a way in which people can escape when such incidents occur.
“If there was an exit many people’s lives could have been saved,” he says adding that they are yet to be compensated.
“There has been no compensation but when they went to bury my friend they gave some little money but since then there has been no communication.”
And his parting shot; “we have only three chances in this life… When you are born, you grow up, lead a good life and then die. That is the challenge I always give myself.”