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A fire set off by a gas explosion in Kenya kills at least 3 people and injures 280

In this image made from video, firefighters work on a fire in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024.
AP
In this image made from video, firefighters work on a fire in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Liquid petroleum gas cylinders exploded in an illegal depot in a residential area of the Kenyan capital, officials said Friday, setting off a late-night inferno that killed at least three people and injured 280 others. The death toll was expected to rise.

The depot in Nairobi had twice been demolished, and the owner had been found guilty of operating an illegal gas refilling business in May, but continued to do business, officials said. That raised suspicions — in a country where corruption is endemic — that bribes were paid to ignore the operation.

At least 24 people were critically injured, the Kenya Red Cross said, after a huge fireball erupted from the gas depot and rapidly spread, burning homes and warehouses. Some gas cylinders were thrown hundreds of meters (yards), sparking separate fires in the neighborhood.

The Petroleum Institute of East Africa said a magistrates' court sentenced the owner of the illegal depot to a year in prison or a fine of $3,076. That was despite a precedent set by Kenya's High Court in which those found guilty of operating an illegal gas facility should be sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison or a fine of at least $61,500.

Despite the law providing for mandatory forfeiture, the magistrate also released all motor vehicles, including two liquid petroleum gas tankers, together with confiscated LPG that had a net weight of 4,660 kilograms (more than 10,000 pounds), the PIEA said.

The institute said one of the tankers that was "unprocedurally released" was involved in the explosions and fire that broke out.

"The proprietor continued operating the illegal storage and refilling facility without even the bare minimum safety standards and qualified LPG personnel as required by law leading to this unfortunate catastrophe which could have been avoided should the letter and spirit of the law have been followed," it said.

Local resident Charles Mainge said "the government knew this liquid petroleum gas plant was existing in a residential area but they did nothing."

"They should make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.

Witnesses said they heard a sound they suspected was gas leaking before at least two explosions and the fire, which broke out at around 11.30 p.m. local time Thursday. Cellphone videos taken by witnesses showed the fireball erupting right next to apartment buildings. People were heard screaming.

Many residents were likely inside their homes when the fire reached their houses in the Mradi area of the Nairobi neighborhood of Embakasi, government spokesman Isaac Mwaura said.

A gas cylinder sent flying through the air set off a fire that burned down a nearby garment and textile warehouse, he said. Several other vehicles and businesses were damaged by the blaze.

At the scene after daybreak, houses and shops were burned out. The roof of a four-story residential building about 200 meters (650 feet) from the scene of the explosion was broken by another flying gas cylinder. Electrical wiring lay on the ground.

Nothing remained in the burned-out gas depot except the shells of several trucks.

Local resident Alfred Juma said neighbors told him they suspected there was a gas leak, and he heard a loud noise from a cylinder in the depot next to his house when he came outside.

"I started waking up neighbors asking them to leave," he said.

Juma said he warned the driver of a car not to drive through the area, but the driver insisted and his vehicle stalled because of the gas fumes.

"He attempted to start the car three times and that's when there was an explosion and the fire spread ... setting off other explosions," he said.

The shell of the vehicle was lying on its side in the aftermath.

Juma said he grabbed two children and they took shelter in a sewage ditch until the explosions ended. His family hadn't been at home, but Juma lost everything that he owned in the fire.

Mainge, the local resident, said neighborhood residents had previous concerns about the gas site operating in the area. He said there were at least two main explosions from the depot, the second of which knocked him and others off their feet after they left their houses to see what was happening.

Police and the Kenya Red Cross reported three deaths and that number may rise, said Wesley Kimeto, the Embakasi police chief.

The government said that 280 people were taken to several hospitals with injuries. At least 25 of the injured were children.

Police had moved people out the area and were preventing them from returning to their homes, resident Caroline Karanja said. She said the smell and the smoke were choking and she would have to stay away for a while because she had young children.

The Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority said the gas storage site had applied for construction permits to build a plant and operate there in March, June and July.

"All applications were rejected as they did not meet the set criteria for an LPG storage and filling plant in that area," the authority said in a statement Friday. "The main reason for the rejection was failure of the designs to meet the safety distances stipulated."

One of the stipulations was that the gas business submit a risk assessment called a "blast profile," which would estimate how surrounding areas would be impacted in the event of an explosion, the regulatory authority said. The gas storage business never submitted those assessments, it said.

The continued operation of the gas depot is likely to put authorities' enforcement of regulations under heavy scrutiny. Officials at the county government have been accused of taking bribes to overlook building codes and other regulations.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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The Associated Press