Barely a week ago, Mr Fred Ating’a bid farewell to his granddaughter as she reported for the third term at Moi Girls Nairobi.
But on Saturday, he was among eight families that will anxiously wait until Tuesday for the identification of badly burnt bodies in a deadly school dormitory fire.
“Mothers will be given first preference. If the mother is not there, either it’s the brother or sister,” Mr Ating’a, whose granddaughter Eunice is feared to be among the dead, told the Nation on Saturday evening.
This came as police investigators sifted through the debris and questioned a number of students as they tried to establish the cause of the fire.
The eight, who were sleeping at the Kabarnet dormitory that housed all the school’s 338 Form One students, were burnt beyond recognition and no parent could recognise any of the bodies on Saturday when government officials allowed them to view the bodies.
The students died when the fire broke out at around 2 am at a section of the one-storey dorm called “Extension” which, according to two survivors, had the highest concentration of students.
Many others sustained injuries during the incident. According to Mr Felix Wanjala, the CEO of Nairobi Women’s Hospital, at least 40 students were treated and discharged at the Adams Arcade branch of the facility while 10 were admitted with two in critical condition.
“Most of the students have been discharged and only two had over 50 per cent burns,” Mr Wanjala said.
Bodies of those who perished were transported from the school to Chiromo Mortuary after 3 pm Saturday and parents have been told to go for DNA identification on Tuesday.
From our interviews with students in an effort to reconstruct the chain of events, it emerged that most learners were woken up by choking fumes of burning substances while others were prodded awake by colleagues.
One girl who escaped the incident with a blister on her left leg revealed that not all windows in the dormitory had grilles, which caused tension as panicking girls tried to find which window to use.
“We had to knock windows for exit because we had to look for those without grilles. As I searched for an exit point, smoke inhalation made me unconscious. But I came to my senses shortly afterwards to find that the jumper I was wearing was on fire. I had to throw it away. My leg was already hurt,” the girl narrated.
“Other students were shouting from down that we use a certain window. I went there and realised it was possible to escape. Then I got out,” she added.
Two girls reported hearing explosions as the fire gained traction, and the way the blaze moved from the ground floor to the upper one remains a puzzle investigators will have to solve.
Regarding the cause of the fire, Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, who visited the school in the morning, said a team of detectives started work immediately.
“We have the government forensic teams led by the government chief chemist and the chief pathologist because we want to get to the bottom of it,” he told the learners.
National Super Alliance (Nasa) leader Raila Odinga, who arrived at the school at around noon, said he hoped the genesis of the inferno would be established.
“We hope we’re going to be able to come to the root cause of this accident. It is a big, big tragedy indeed. We’re told the fire started at night, around 2 am; nobody knows the cause. We, at this moment, don’t want to speculate. We really want to leave it to the hands of the experts to investigate and tell us the cause of this,” he told journalists at the school compound.
The Council of Governors also joined calls for a thorough probe.
“I call upon the ministries of Education and Interior and National Coordination to investigate this worrying trend of fire tragedies in our schools that had previously been contained but seem to be creeping back to our learning institutions,” the council’s chairman Josephat Nanok said in a statement.
Dr Matiang’i said he will hold a press conference tomorrow to give an update on the incident and to give guidelines on how this year’s national examinations will be conducted.
He also said the government will offer support to the parents.
“I would not like any one of them to be worried about the hospital bill right now. We want to ensure the children are fine,” he said after visiting students who are admitted to Nairobi Women’s Hospital.
According to term two examination results posted on the notice board of the school’s administration block, the facility has 338 girls in Form One, 287 in Form Two, 280 in Form Three and 261 in Form Four. Students were in shock yesterday as parents sought to know the whereabouts of their daughters.
Students were ordered out of their dormitories and were not allowed back in.
“No access to hostels today (Saturday). Just go home the way you are; your property will be taken care of by the school,” an announcement was made.
Dr Matiang’i ordered the school to be closed “so that we allow you to settle down and come to terms with what has happened before you can continue with your studies”.
Form Fours will return on Friday while the rest will come back on September 15.
Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko said the county government would work with the national government to rehabilitate the facility.
“We are going to partner with the national government and the school, and as we do the renovation and the reconstruction of the dormitories, we’ve learnt a lesson. We are going to inspect other schools, both private and public schools, in Nairobi. We must have sufficient exits from our dormitories,” he said.
A Form One girl identified as Deborah was among those who were relieved to meet their parents.
FULL OF SMOKE
“I’m scared,” she said. “We were asleep. Another girl woke me up telling me the dorm was full of smoke and that there was fire. I got up and couldn’t find my slippers fast enough so I ran off. I took the stairs and ran outside.”
Her father said he had heard the news on radio and had to rush there. However, not all parents had such reunions.
It did not help matters that police and the school administration kept them waiting, referring them to a counselling room.
“Since morning, nobody has talked to us,” an angry father shouted at police as other parents confronted officers at around 12.34 pm.
“How soon? Two hours, three hours?” another parent asked.
The fact that a help desk had been set up by Kenya Red Cross did not do much to calm the parents. “We are just being tossed around; being told we’re going to be counselled. You want to counsel us and you don’t want to give us the true position?” lamented Idi Masoud, whose niece is feared to be among the dead.
Mr Ating’a, whose granddaughter is among those feared dead, said the number of parents with missing children tallied with the number of bodies.
As parents await the process of identifying the bodies, questions linger on how the fire could have started and how it spread.
One emerging theory from our interviews with learners is that there was a wayward student residing at the lower floor who had previously been spotted with a matchbox.
It is suspected the student torched her mattress and caused the inferno.
There are concerns also about the exits at the dorm. A survivor told the Nation that learners at both floors had two exits. The back exit, she said, was unusable because it was clogged with smoke.
“I couldn’t even see where I was going. I was following people,” she said.
A number of dignitaries visited, including Chief Justice David Maraga, Thirdway Alliance leader Ekuru Aukot and woman representatives Esther Passaris (Nairobi) and Sabina Chege (Murang’a).
Additional reporting by James Kahongeh
Disaster report recommends that schools should have fire fighting equipment.