Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Tuesday, 24 January 2006

Kenya rescue mission gathers pace

By Karen Allen
BBC News, Nairobi

Ronald Ngala Street on the edge of Nairobi's business district is packed - even more so during the lunch break, so it was the equivalent of the "rush hour" when a five-storey building, still under construction collapsed.

Collapsed building in Nairobi
The rubble was initially removed with bare hands

Among those crushed in the tangled mess of concrete and steel - construction workers and also women who had been selling food to the workmen on the ground floor.

At least one woman's two-year-old child was injured in the accident and passers by on the street also found themselves caught up, in what very quickly emerged as a terrible accident.

In the immediate hours that followed, rescue teams and paramedics used their bare hands to remove slabs of concrete from the site, piece by piece.

A portion of building that remained intact, hung precariously over their heads, and it was many hours before mechanical lifting gear was finally brought in.

As word got round the capital that a major rescue operation was under way, thousands of people flocked to the scene, some trying to help remove rubble, clearing a path for emergency vehicles, others simply to watch.

As the numbers of onlookers swelled, riot police and army were deployed to try and disperse the inquisitive crowd.

But there seemed to be no tears, no scenes of relatives rushing to see if their loved ones had been crushed - just stunned faces in a crowd which seven years ago saw a major bomb blast shake this city.

Slow progress

Clambering onto the roof of a building 50 metres directly in front of the wreckage, my colleague and I watched as casualties were brought out - gently eased over heads on stretchers, and given first aid at the scene.

Emerging too though were those that did not survive. Very quickly a temporary mortuary was set up at the side of the road. The dead hastily covered up.

Many of them, construction workers, who earned little more than $2.50 a day.

As night fell - a desperate plea for more blood and generators to provide power went out as fresh teams of rescue workers and back up medical teams moved in.

Then shortly after 2000 there was a burst of applause.

A 23-year-old man emerged from the rubble, covered in dust and supported under each arm by rescue workers. He appeared to have no major injuries and walked from the place he'd been buried in for at least six hours.

Johnson Abala had been working on the construction site when the building collapsed. Dazed and bewildered by the attention from the crowd, he mouthed that he was just grateful to be alive, as he was bundled into an ambulance and taken to hospital.

Police control bystanders
Police were needed to restrain the gathering crowd

Throughout the night more survivors have been found - but bodies trapped in the debris have pushed the death toll up.

As daylight broke - US marines deployed from Djibouti and specialist Israeli teams, joined the rescue effort.

Now more than 24 hours since the tragedy struck, the pace of work has been significantly stepped up. The sound of drills and mechanical cutting equipment fill the air.

And more survivors are being found.

Police indicate that the rescue and then the recovery effort could last for more than a week.

With the very real prospect that more people could have survived this tragic accident, the focus now is on getting them out.

In pictures: Kenya building collapse
23 Jan 06 |  In Pictures
Is your city too chaotic?
10 Dec 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Kenya
22 Nov 05 |  Country profiles

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