- Associated Press - Monday, September 12, 2011

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A leaking gasoline pipeline in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, exploded on Monday, turning part of a slum into an inferno in which at least 75 people were killed and more than 100 hurt.

Flames leapt out from the pipeline in a radius of some 300 yards, setting shacks ablaze and incinerating scores of people. Reporters later saw clusters of charred bodies and blackened bones at the site. Some burned bodies floated in a nearby river filled with sewage. Homes were built right up to the pipeline, the residents said.

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

Red Cross official Pamela Indiaka said the Red Cross is providing body bags and has dealt with 75 bodies so far. The death toll from the blast may rise.

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.

Resident Joseph Mwangi, 34, said he was feeding his cow when people went running past him, calling out that there was a leak in the pipeline. He said others started drawing fuel and that he was going to go and get a bucket and get fuel, too, when he heard an explosion around 9 a.m. By then, fuel had leaked into the river, parts of which also caught fire. People in flames were jumping into the fiery, stinking mess, he said.

Moments after speaking to the AP, Mr. Mwangi discovered two small charred bodies in the burned wreckage of his home.

“Those were my children,” he said blankly before collapsing on the ground and sobbing.

Another man, Michael Muriuki, found the body of his 5-year-old 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.

The Red Cross was conducting search-and-rescue operations and had set up two tents for first aid and counseling, said Bernard Magila, who was helping the operation. Body bags and materials for temporary shelter also were being provided.

At least 112 burn victims have arrived so far at Kenyatta National Hospital, which urgently needs blood donors and blankets, said Richard Lisiyampe, the head of the hospital. Many children were among the victims. Most had burns covering more than a third of their bodies, he said. Some were unrecognizable, said St. John’s Ambulance Service spokesman Fred Majiwa.

Inside the hospital, beds were crowded together, and doctors and nurses rushed from victim to victim. Many had long strips of skin hanging from their heads and bodies. One man picked at his hands distractedly, peeling off skin like gloves. Relatives, waiting for news, clustered outside operating rooms.

“This is a terrible accident,” said Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who visited the wounded in hospital. He said the government would cover medical expenses for the injured and pay compensation to those who lost loved ones. He also said he had visited the offices of the state-owned Kenya Pipeline Co., which operates the pipeline.

The company told Mr. Odinga that the explosion was caused by a leak from the pipeline into nearby sewage, he said. Workers who answered the phones at the pipeline offices declined to give a comment or their names.

“There will be a proper investigation,” Mr. Odinga said.

In 2009, at least 120 people were killed when they were trying to scoop fuel spilled from a crashed gasoline tanker in Kenya and it exploded.

Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld and Malkhadir M. Muhumed contributed to this report.