The pain and anguish of families who lost their loved ones in the fuel tanker tragedy in Siaya County on Saturday was tellingly unbearable as they desperately visited hospitals to find out the fate of missing kin.
Other grieving relatives returned to the scene yesterday as national and county officials worked round-the-clock to assist them through an information desk that’s coordinating search efforts.
Mr Erick Kembo Apondi stood beside the wreckage of the tanker, grief-stricken as he came to terms with the incident that has left his son fighting for his life in hospital.
Two of his sons aged 14 and 17, who are set to join Form One, were both at the scene of the explosion, but one escaped unhurt.
Mr Apondi was relaxing at home when he learnt that David Omondi, the older one, had sustained serious burns as he joined other villagers in siphoning oil, prompting him to rush to the scene to join rescue efforts.
“I had remained at home when a neighbour ran to my house to alert me about the bad news. I him to Yala dispensary but was referred to Siaya County Referral Hospital because they said he had 80 per cent burns,” Mr Apondi said.
His condition was worsening by the hour as he had burns on his whole body, but he remained hopeful he would pull through. “By the time I left the hospital at the wee hours of the morning, he could not even speak. I am only hoping he pulls through,” said Mr Apondi.
As for Mrs Damaris Mukobe, the uncertainty of a missing loved one is driving her crazy. By 1pm yesterday, she was still looking for his close relatives after she heard that her nephew, Mr Wycliffe Omollo, suffered serious burns and had been admitted at Yala hospital.
“I heard the news of the incident in Busia and was told that my nephew was among those who went to siphon fuel. We are still trying to trace him,” said Mrs Mukobe.
She warned people against rushing to such scenes and endangering their lives.
Ms Diana Odongo will live to remember the nightmare for the rest of her life as she narrowly escaped death but the whereabouts of her co-wife, Maureen Atieno, and nephew, Samuel Omondi, 22, are unknown.
She recalls hearing a loud bang, screams and smoke coming from the burning tanker as she returned home.
“I was on my way home with a 20-litre jerrycan when I heard the explosion. Behind us was a ball of fire. We had to run fast as our clothes had been covered with petrol. I’m lucky I had left; I could have perished in the fire,” she says.
Ms Odongo suspects Atieno and Omondi perished in the fire as efforts to locate them have been futile so far. Atieno is a mother of two, while Omondi is a second-year student at a polytechnic in Kisumu.
“We have visited those nursing injuries in Inuka, Yala and Siaya hospitals but have not been able to identify our missing relatives. We suspect they are among those who died,” said Ms Odongo.
Many grieving relatives have not had an opportunity to identify the bodies that are at the sub-county referral hospital mortuary.
Earlier, villagers had reportedly argued with the tanker driver, who had threatened to blow up the vehicle if they continued siphoning oil.
“We pleaded with him to allow us scoop the fuel but he stood his ground. As we left the scene, we heard the explosion. The driver was among those who died,” said Ms Odongo.
Precious Adhiambo is mourning her sister, Sharon Omollo, who is believed to be among those who were burnt beyond recognition.
Before encountering her death, she had dreams of joining college to pursue a teaching career. She had a part time job in Nairobi and was due to travel to the city on Sunday morning.
“My sister was scheduled to travel on Saturday but the bus delayed and due to the curfew, they moved travel arrangements to Sunday. She had already packed her things and was all set to go,” said Ms Adhiambo.
Hours before the explosion, the two sisters had their evening meal and spent time chatting and whiling the evening away. In their conversations, Ms Adhiambo said her sister had somehow sounded ominous, when she mentioned something about her death.
“She kept speaking about her fears of death and how she would die before me. I never took her words seriously,” said the distraught sister.
After the accident, they rushed to the scene, which is about 50 meters from their home and joined other villagers in siphoning fuel. They filled two 20-litre jerrycans and quickly took them home.
“She then returned to the scene with a 10-litre jerrycan and that’s the last time I saw her. Shortly after, there was an explosion and it was like hell,” said Ms Adhiambo.
“We have been to Yala, Siaya, Inuka and Rang’ara hospitals but hopes of finding our sister alive are almost gone. We have sadly come to the conclusion that she was among those who were burnt to death. We have lost a sister who had a bright future,” she added.
Mr Lawrence Ohono, whose brother is nursing serious burns at Inuka Hospital, said he was lucky to be alive as he hastily left the scene for fear of arrest for violating the curfew.
“I had also filled a 10-litre jerrycan of fuel and left fearing arrest by the police for violating the curfew,” said Mr Ohono.
He heard a loud bang and a few minutes later, his brother came home screaming and told them what had transpired. “He had burns on his hands and the waist. He later collapsed. We rushed him to Inuka hospital where he is receiving treatment,” said Mr Ohono.
The accident scene is a blackspot along the busy highway as there have been three accidents involving trucks in the last six months.
“Three months ago, a truck transporting wheat flour overturned at the same spot,” said Mr Ohono.
He blamed the actions of the villagers on poverty and the high cost of living due to the tough economic times.
Malanga assistant chief, Millicent Ouma Otieno, said six families have reported their loved ones missing.
“If we identify the missing persons, then we will be able to see if we can put a name to the bodies. Among those reported missing are four women, one of whom was seven months pregnant,” said Mrs Otieno.
She urged those who escaped with minor burns to seek treatment from nearby health facilities.
Reported by Rushdie Oudia, Elizabeth Ojina and Angeline Ochieng