A truck filled with canisters of cooking gas ignited in a huge ball of flame that spread around the facility and burned down factories and homes in the Embakasi district’s Mradi neighborhood, which is packed with low-income residents and near Kenya’s international airport.
“The houses started to shake and the explosions started happening every few seconds, so I got worried and went out to see what was going on,” Zainab Said, 33, said from a nearby hospital where she was being treated for second-degree burns. “I went up to the gate where I saw the flames. I then felt heat in my body and fell down.” She said she suffered burns on her legs and hands.
Said, who lives just 200 yards from the filling station, said she saw a woman engulfed in flames but that there was nothing she could do. At the Ruai Family Hospital where she was receiving treatment, she said, one of her neighbors had burns on his head.
Everlyne Simiyu, 45, said she had left her house to pick up some groceries when the blasts started. “I heard a first big explosion and then other ones,” she said. “The first explosion was the one that spread the fire. The smaller ones were exploding and burning the electricity cables. I saw the electricity cables fall on people and burn them.”
Dodging flames and balls of fire, she rushed home to her 23-year-old daughter, Cynthia, who was still in the house, with burns all over her back and hands. Together they escaped a neighborhood engulfed in flames and made it to a nearby hospital.
Residents posted videos on social media of huge flames shooting up into the night sky amid the sound of people screaming.
A senior employee at Kenyatta National Hospital, the largest health facility in the country, said it received 45 patients, nine of them in critical condition, and that more arrived during the day.
“It took time for help to come,” said Peter Njenga, who also witnessed the blast. “Thirty minutes after and there was no help. People from the informal settlements were running to the other estates for safety.”
The Embakasi plant that exploded was one of hundreds of illegal gas filling stations in the country, said journalist Edwin Okoth, who investigated the stations for a local daily in 2016 and described how they were concentrated in residential areas. “I even mapped that Embakasi plant in that story, warning that there was a regulatory lapse, there was no monitoring, and it was a time bomb waiting to happen,” he said. “And now it has happened.”
The gas canisters, which are widely used for cooking, can be purchased legally from official dealers, but many residents choose the cheaper options from the illegal vendors, he explained.
“Those guys don’t have gas cylinders, [so] they steal empty cylinders, they rebrand them, they put different colors on them, and then they go and refill them,” Okoth said. “That means there is no safety protocol or procedures at the plants and the cylinders are not checked. Even the quality of gas is not guaranteed.”
After his investigation, he said, he received threats from regulatory officials who claimed he was being used by the official dealers to suppress smaller sellers.
Kenya’s Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority said in a statement Friday that the filling plant had applied for permits for natural gas storage in March, June and July of last year but that all applications were rejected on grounds that “they did not meet the set criteria for a LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] storage and filling plant in the area because of the high population density in the area.”
In a statement Wankiju Manyara, head of the Petroleum Institute of East Africa, the professional body overseeing the industry, said that the owners of the facility had already been tried and convicted of running an unsafe facility but were just let off with fines in May 2023 instead of given jail time.
“Despite the above actions and convictions, the proprietor continued operating the illegal storage and refilling facility without even the bare minimum safety standards and qualified LPG personnel as required by law leading to this unfortunate catastrophe which could have been avoided,” she said.
The Embakasi district has several such informal filling stations, residents said.