- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

ATHI RIVER, Kenya Nine runaway train cars, six carrying liquefied gas, derailed at a station south of Nairobi, igniting a fireball that killed 16 persons, injured dozens and consumed nearby houses, witnesses and officials said yesterday.

Of the dead, 13 were railway employees or their family members who lived in homes inside the Athi station's grounds, 15 miles south of the capital, Kenya Railways said in a statement. The dead were believed to be sleeping when the train cars derailed and exploded around midnight Saturday. The three others killed were in the area from nearby slums, officials said.

At least 36 persons were injured, some with severe burns, local hospitals reported.

"They looked like ashes. Only two could be seen as bodies," said Richard Njiru, an ambulance driver who transported some of the victims.

There were about 30 houses around the station, a number of which were reduced to charred rubble.

"There was liquid fire in the air, which was dropping like it was raining fire," said Anthony Chira, whose house was damaged in the accident. "I thank God for being alive because some people were burned beyond recognition. People were running and shouting with fire on their heads."

Mr. Chira, who lives in a railway-owned house within the station's grounds 50 yards from where the explosions took place, said he was awakened around midnight by the "feel of heat." He saw fire everywhere and heard explosions "again and again."

The fire gutted two of the three rooms in Mr. Chira's home, which he shares with his wife, three children and a railway employee.

More than 16 hours after the crash, houses and rail cars were still smoldering as firefighters and railway engineers cleaned up the site. The mangled rail cars were spread across six lines of track, and trees and grass within a 100-yard radius were scorched.

The accident happened when the train cars reversed down the track out of control after being detached from a freight train.

Officials said the cars were detached from a freight train at a station a few miles north of Athi River and began rolling backward out of control along the main rail line to Nairobi from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

On reaching Athi station, the cars derailed and exploded on impact, said Kariuki Kimani, the police officer in charge of Athi River.

"They call it runaways, maybe something went wrong. We need to investigate," said Esther Otieno, deputy operations director at the station. Detaching the cars was "normal" procedure, Miss Otieno said.

A railway official at the scene said the nine rail cars had been detached to reduce the load because of a problem with the train's pulling power.

"It was not expected that the carriages would roll back," said the official, who did not want to be identified.

Kenya has seen a series of deadly train derailments in the past year. Seven passengers died and 38 were injured Wednesday when a train went off the tracks in western Kenya. Last year, 32 persons were killed when a passenger train derailed on the Mombasa-to-Nairobi line.

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