- Associated Press - Monday, September 12, 2011

NAIROBI, Kenya — Joseph Mwangi hoped and prayed his children had escaped the inferno caused when a leaking gasoline pipeline exploded Monday, sending flames racing through a Nairobi slum and killing at least 75 people.

Then he saw two small blackened bodies in the wreckage of his home.

“Those were my children,” he sobbed, collapsing in anguish amid the charred corrugated iron sheets and twisted metal.

Mr. Mwangi had been feeding his cow when the call went out at about 9 a.m. - a section of pipe had burst near the river that cuts through the slum and gasoline was pouring out. Men, women and children grabbed anything they could find to collect the flowing fuel.

Mr. Mwangi, 34, had planned to get a bucket and join them - he’d done so before with earlier diesel leaks without any problem, he said, and a bucket of fuel could pay a month’s rent.

“Everybody knows that fuel is gold,” he said.

But before he could join the others, an explosion rocked the area, sending a fireball racing through the Sinai slum in Nairobi’s industrial zone. Screaming men and women in flames desperately jumped into the river and a nearby sewage ditch, but fuel had leaked into the rancid water and in many places it caught fire, too.

Red Cross coordinator Pamela Indiaka said at least 75 bodies had been recovered and the death toll was expected to rise. At least 112 people were taken to hospitals with severe burns.

“I’ve lost count of the number of bodies,” said Wilfred Mbithi, the police officer in charge of operations in Nairobi as he stood at the scene. “Many had dived into the river trying to put out their flames.”

Nearby, a young woman clawed through smoldering timbers, screaming in grief. Others wandered by the remains of the inferno, frantically dialing phone numbers that didn’t go through or staring around in disbelief.

Fires still smoldered among the twisted wreckage of corrugated iron sheets and scattered possessions. Visibility was poor because of rain and smoke.

Michael Muriuki, found the body of his young daughter still smoldering. He ran to the river for water to put her out. He took a deep breath and struggled for control before speaking.

“Her name was Josephine Muriuki. She was 5,” he said.

At the time of the explosion, the narrow, twisting alleyways would have been packed with people on their way to work or school who had stopped to try to scoop up fuel. The flimsy homes of corrugated iron sheets would have offered little resistance to the blast.