Kenya declares weeklong mourning for fire victims

February 2, 2009 7:16:46 AM PST
Kenya began a week of mourning Monday after two massive fires that killed more than 140 people and brought criticism of the government's ability to prevent and respond to disasters. Flags will fly at half staff and official functions have been postponed.

More than 100 people were killed Saturday after an overturned gasoline tanker exploded as hundreds of people were trying to scoop up free fuel. The government said Monday the death toll was 115, but the figure was likely to rise. Nearly 200 were hurt in the blaze in Molo, about 105 miles (170 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Nairobi.

The government sent extra body bags and medical supplies to the area by helicopter, along with more doctors for the overwhelmed hospitals, where some victims were lying on floors.

A cigarette was believed to have sparked the blaze as police struggled to control the crowds of villagers.

Another fire last week, at a supermarket in downtown Nairobi, killed nearly 30 people. Witnesses said it took more than an hour for firefighters to reach the store, even though it was located in the center of town. Fire hoses, riddled with holes, ran dry as hundreds of bystanders tried to help douse the flames.

Officials were still investigating the cause of the supermarket blaze. Meanwhile, Kenya's Red Cross said Monday that DNA testing of badly burned victims would begin this week, and it called on victims parents or siblings to provide samples.

The group said the death toll stood at 28, but dozens were still reported missing.

"Let the deaths provide a lesson and jolt us into being a lot more prepared for disasters," the Daily Nation newspaper said Monday in an editorial. The newspaper said the Molo inferno "once again exposed the level of disaster unpreparedness across the country. Watching top government officials making frantic efforts to get the injured to hospitals ... was a study in logistical inefficiency."

Kenya's government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, said Monday he had no immediate comment on the criticism.

In the hospitals near Molo, hundreds of injured people overwhelmed medical facilities. Burn victims lined the floors, hooked to drips and moaning in pain. Authorities expected the death toll to rise and were still searching the scorched woods for corpses.

The criticism of the government's response and safety regulations comes at a time of turmoil in Kenya, which is suffering through a food crisis and infighting among the power-sharing government, which was formed last year in the wake of postelection violence that killed more than 1,000 people.

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