Mon Sep 12, 2011 4:51pm GMT
By Richard Lough and James Macharia

(Reuters) - At least 75 bodies have been recovered after petrol that had spilled into an open sewer caught fire and sent a wave of flame through a densely populated slum in the Kenyan capital, police said on Monday.

Kenyan media said more than 100 people were burnt to death and a similar number were taken to hospital. Police said it was proving difficult to establish the exact number of dead among the charred remains.

Residents said petrol spilled from a fuel depot owned by the Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) and ran into a sewage dyke that runs under the slum, known as Sinai. The petrol ignited, causing an inferno.

So far we have taken 75 bodies to the mortuary, but we are still searching for more, Wilfred Mbithi, an assistant commissioner of police coordinating the search told Reuters.

Police spokesman Charles Owino said the fire was started by a cigarette butt tossed onto the dyke, which opens into a small river. Authorities said they were battling the fire in an area estimated to be just over an acre.

Local television channels aired images of smouldering skeletons as the fire raged through the slum.

Children in school uniform ran in all directions, badly burnt slum dwellers staggered in a daze and the smell of smoke and burning flesh filled the air.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga visited the scene of the fire.

The government will do everything possible to ensure the injured will be treated and the families who have lost their loved ones will be compensated, he said, speaking through the sun-roof of his 4x4 vehicle.

Odinga wiped tears after visiting the injured in hospital.

President Mwai Kibaki also visited patients with severe burns at the country's largest public hospital. Doctors there appealed for blood donations.

Police said some of the slum's residents were killed while trying to scoop up the fuel from the burst pipe and from the sewer. Many had hoped to sell the petrol on the black market.

The scene is bad. There are many bodies, we are yet to count them. Sometimes poverty can push you to do very dangerous things, Owino said.

Abandoned jerry cans littered the scene where dozens of fire trucks and ambulances tried to make their way through the crowd.

SCHOOL RAZED

Firefighters scrambled across the corrugated rooftops of burning shacks to spray foam on petrol that flowed down muddy alleyways.

Local media berated the government and KPC for poor safety standards and inadequate disaster preparedness.

Energy Minister Kiraitu Mutungi said: Some people have squatted on the top of the area reserved for the pipeline. We have tried to move them, but so far we have been unsuccessful.

Residents have in the past refused to move despite repeated warnings, saying they had nowhere else to go to.

There is an informal school inside the slum, they have all been burnt, said Daniel Mutinda, a search and rescue team leader at the Kenya Red Cross. We are putting bodies into body bags, they are totally burnt, beyond recognition.

One of the residents of the slum said people had rushed to fill their jerry cans with free petrol before the explosion.

I was going to the loo down by the river just after 4 a.m. when I saw the gold flowing from the pipe. I ran home and grabbed two jerry cans and went back to fill them up. As I finished and turned away there was a boom as the fuel ignited, said Sammy Njenga, a 21-year-old unemployed slum dwellers.

I could feel the flames on my back. I had been standing next to a mother-of-three who wasn't fast enough. She died.

About 120 people died when a crowd scrabbling for free fuel crowded round a tanker that crashed near the Rift Valley town of Molo in January 2009.