Kenyan president vows to get to truth of school fire

2001-03-27 07:55

Machakos, Kenya - President Daniel arap Moi has pledged to get to the truth behind Kenya's deadliest fire in recent years, as suspicions grew that the blaze in the early hours of Monday might have been deliberately set.

Kenyan newspapers reported on Tuesday that the death toll in the disastrous fire claimed 68 lives and not 58 as reported earlier.

The newspapers quoted provincial education director Samson Kisuke as giving the figure although a police spokesperson told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) on Tuesday that the official death toll still stood at 58 in the fire at Machakos, a town some 60 kilometres southeast of Nairobi.

As stunned Kenyans contemplated horrific television footage of what Moi called the ghastly incident, teachers at Kyanguli mixed secondary school said they suspected that the fire was started by an arsonist with a grudge over a cheating scandal.

Survivor after survivor spoke of suspicious incidents in the minutes before the dormitory erupted in flames in the early hours of Monday, and teachers recalled recent acrimony among pupils over the education authorities' cancellation of exam results following a cheating scandal.

"Some of the students and parents were very distressed," Jack Kakonzi, a former member of the school board, said. "They thought nothing was being done (to reinstate the exam results) ...this may have precipitated this action."

Over 30 pupils had recently had their school-leaving exam results quashed and teachers said rumours had been rife that mass expulsions were expected this week.

Sammy Kyungu, Kenya's director of education, was cautious about suggestions that the fire was started by disgruntled students, saying it was not the only school to be plagued by cheating allegations.

"It is too early to connect the two," he said. "This school, like 99 others, was affected in recent cancellation of results."

Minority voice

But Kyungu's was a minority voice. Several police spokespersons said they were pursuing the possibility of foul play at the school near Machakos town 65km (40 miles) east of Nairobi.

Evidence from survivors added to the suspicions.

Robert Masembi, 17, said his schoolmates awoke in terror to dense fumes and stampeded for the exits as the blaze raced through the single-storey building in the early hours.

"They were rushing everywhere without knowing what to do. They were totally confused. There was a choking smell," Masembi said.

Police said many of the 130 boys in the overcrowded dormitory - built to hold only half that number - had reached safety according to reports 57 had been killed and 28 injured, many with serious burns. Those who died were aged between 14 and 20.

Police said the fire was the country's worst school blaze and the country's deadliest fire of any kind in recent times.

In August 2000, 25 people were killed when a runaway fuel-laden goods train ploughed off the rails and exploded into flames at Athi River station near Nairobi. In 1998, 25 girls were killed in a still unexplained blaze at a school at Bombolulu near the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

Francis Ngunga, a teacher at Kyanguli, told reporters that at about 1:30am a boy left the dormitory to report to an adult supervisor that liquid was spread across the floor.

"He left the dormitory through the door - it was not locked. When they (the boy and the supervisor) came back, they found the dormitory on fire and the door locked," Ngunga said.

Teachers said pupils had reported a smell of petrol on Saturday but senior staff who investigated had been unable to locate the source.