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Hero street children rescued scores from burning flats of Gikomba

On an ordinary day, Tyson Maina, a street boy, wakes up at five o’clock in the morning to embark on his daily hustle of hauling goods for those running businesses at Gikomba market in Nairobi.

However, Thursday morning, Maina was one of tens of other street children and volunteers who, without training or equipment, put their lives on the line to rescue people trapped in buildings after a fire broke out in the Nairobi suburb. By the latest count last evening, the fire had killed 15 and injured over 70.

“I was woken up by a blast that was followed by a series of sparking on power cables near the market,” Maina told the Nation at the horrifying ruins of what had, just hours earlier, been the lifeline of tens, perhaps hundreds, of families.

WARNING SHOUTS

“We started shouting to warn people who were sleeping in the flats, but our efforts to save them were thwarted by security guards, who locked the gates to the apartment blocks fearing that looters would invade them.”

When the fire started, Joseph Muge, another street boy, woke up his fellow street boys who live under a bridge near the market.

“We rushed in with containers and drew water from the river and tried to put out the fires, but the police chased us away soon after they arrived,” Muge said.

“We then forced our way into a nearby building to rescue those who were trapped. There were bodies along the staircases in one of the buildings. I counted more than ten bodies,” he said.

Muge said he and fellow street boys climbed to the third floor of one of the apartment blocks before it became too hot and too smoky for them to go on.

ENTRANCE LOCKED

Joel Ogaro, another volunteer, said a guard who was manning a door to one of the buildings whose ground floor houses a mattress warehouse locked the entrance, sealing the fate of those inside.

“When the electric cables caught fire and exploded, the guard fled. We could hear people crying for help but at that point no one could access the buildings,” Ogaro said.

One woman is said to have died at the entrance of the building, Beth Njambi, an eyewitness, told the Nation that the street children were the first responders to the fire tragedy.

WATER FROM RIVER

“They came here very fast and started putting out the fire with water from the river before the government rescue team and the Red Cross arrived,” Njambi said.

Muge added that some of the street children who had volunteered in the rescue operation died in the fire.

The Nation could not confirm the claim, and neither could those at the scene Thursday provide the exact number of street boys who died in the spirit of rescue

Njambi said they rescued four people from burning homes.

UNCONSCIOUS

“They were all unconscious from the smoke. We gave them first aid before they were taken to hospital. We also pulled six badly bodies from three of adjacent houses. It was a traumatising scene,” she said.

Inside one of the buildings, Njambi said they found a child foaming from the mouth, next to a lady who lay sprawled on the floor, breathless. They managed to save the child, who was about four years old, and several others.

Their efforts, however, seemed fruitless as another blast soon ensued and the entire market was immersed in flames.

When property owners arrived at the scene, they joined the police in chasing the street boys to the farthest corner of the market.

FURIOUS FIRE

Muge said it took less than half an hour for the furious fire to rattle through the stalls and consume everything in its way.

Another hero was Benjamin Ochieng, who works in the market. He was walking home from a night shift when he was attracted by a noisy commotion emanating from Kwa Mbao area, named after its many timber yards.

He rushed there only to be confronted by a blazing inferno whose tongues now appeared to reach the second floor of an adjacent building.

Realising that there wasn’t much he could do as the volunteer rescuer squads at the scene were being repelled, he rushed to a nearby footbridge, underneath which he found groups of youth trying to fight the flames using the water they fetched from the river running next to the market.

Without a word, he joined them in holding the flames at bay as they awaited the fire teams’ arrival.

NARROW PATHS

“The paths between different stalls are thin and this greatly impeded our efforts,” he said.

Most of those who perished in the dawn inferno were women and children.

While the government has put the figure of those who died at nine, volunteer rescuers believe the number was higher. A road separates the buildings from the workshops, and how the fire penetrated the buildings, their sealed steel doors notwithstanding, remains a mystery.

UHURU SHOCKED

President Kenyatta Thursday expressed shock at the tragedy and called for a review of the country’s emergency services and its disaster preparedness.

“We owe the victims, and the people of Nairobi, a clear, credible plan to end these fires,” he said.

“In the hours since, the tragedy has deepened: Kenyans have lost loved ones; many victims, some of them young children, remain in critical condition in hospital. My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and to their families,” he went on.

“Prayer will be followed by action: we will support victims and their families through this difficult time; we will fully investigate the cause of the fire; and we will work to make sure that no such tragedy recurs,” added the President.