NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A truck loaded with liquid petroleum gas cylinders exploded in a depot in the Kenyan capital and set off a late-night inferno that rapidly spread and burned homes and warehouses, killing at least three people and injuring 280, officials said Friday. The death toll was expected to rise.
At least 24 people were critically injured, the Kenya Red Cross said, after a huge fireball erupted from the gas depot. Some gas cylinders were thrown hundreds of meters (feet), sparking separate fires in the neighborhood.
The truck was parked inside a gas cylinder storage and filling site that had multiple applications to operate there rejected last year because it was too close to residential areas, Kenya's Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority said, raising questions over whether it was operating illegally.
“The government knew this liquid petroleum gas plant was existing in a residential area but they did nothing,” local resident Charles Mainge said. “They should make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Witnesses said they heard a sound they suspected was gas leaking before at least two explosions and the massive fire, which broke out at around 11.30 p.m. local time Thursday. Cell phone 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. Electric wires 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 black 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 that black vehicle was lying on its side in the aftermath.
Juma said he grabbed two children and they hid in a sewage ditch until the explosions ended. His family hadn't been at home, but Juma lost everything he owned in the fire.
Mainge, the local resident, said people in the neighborhood had previous concerns over 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 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 still 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 made applications for construction permits to build a plant and operate there in March, June and July last year.
"All applications were rejected as they did not meet the set criteria for an LPG (liquid petroleum gas) 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.
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Tom Odula, The Associated Press