A leaking gasoline pipeline in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, exploded on Monday, turning a slum into an inferno in which at least 75 people were killed and more than 100 severely burned.

Flames leapt out from the pipeline in a radius of some 300 metres, setting shacks ablaze and incinerating scores of people, leaving charred bodies and blackened buildings.

Some homes had been built right up to the pipeline, the residents said.

Lunga Lunga, Nairobi, Kenya

"I've lost count of the number of bodies," said Wilfred Mbithi, the policeman in charge of operations in Nairobi as he stood at the scene. "Many had dived into the river trying to put out their flames."

A Red Cross official said at least 75 bodies have been recovered.

Fires still smouldered among the twisted wreckage of corrugated iron sheets and scattered possessions. Visibility was poor because of rain and smoke.

Death toll could be 'hundreds'

The CBC's Carolyn Dunn said that before the explosion, gasoline had spilled into a nearby sewer in the Sinai slum, located in an industrial neighbourhood in southeastern Nairobi.

Residents scrambled towards the spill with buckets and cans, eager to scoop up some of the valuable fuel to sell or use for themselves. Instead, something — possibly a cigarette or a spark — caused a huge explosion.

Resident Joseph Mwangi, 34, said he was feeding his cow when people went running past him, calling out that there was a leak in the pipeline.

He said others started siphoning fuel and that he was heading out to join them with his own bucket when he heard an explosion around 9 a.m. local time. By then, fuel had leaked into the river and parts of the river had also alight.

To save themselves, people in flames ran towards sewage dykes. Dozens jumped into the fiery, stinking mess, Mwangi said.

Moments after speaking to the Associated Press, he discovered two small charred bodies in the burnt wreckage of his home.

"Those were my children," he said blankly, before collapsing on the ground and sobbing.

Dunn said it is difficult to tell how many people live in Nairobi's sprawling slums because people are essentially squatters. As many as eight or 10 people can live in each of the tiny, metal shacks scattered across the area.

"So a fire that went 300 metres could literally engulf hundreds and hundreds of people," Dunn said from Nairobi.

People in the streets during explosion

At the time of the explosion, the narrow, twisting alleyways would have been packed with people on their way to work or school who had stopped to try to scoop up fuel. The flimsy homes of corrugated iron sheets would have offered little protection from the blast.


Joseph Mwangi sits in a state of shock after learning that his two daughters were killed in the gasoline explosion that ripped through a section of Nairobi, Kenya on Sept. 12, 2011. ((Ben Curtis/Associated Press))

The Red Cross was conducting search and rescue operations and had set up two tents for first aid and counselling, said Bernard Magila, who was helping the operation. Bodybags and materials for temporary shelter were also being provided.

At least 112 burn victims have arrived so far at Kenyatta National Hospital and they urgently need blood donors and blankets, said Richard Lisiyampe, the head of the hospital.

Many children were among the victims. Most had burns covering more than a third of their bodies, he said. Some were unrecognizable, said St. John's Ambulance Service spokesman Fred Majiwa.

Touring the carnage later on Monday, Kenya's Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, was moved to tears.

"This is a terrible accident," Odinga said, as he visited the wounded in hospital. He said the government would cover medical expenses for the injured and pay adequate compensation to those who lost loved ones.

He also said he had visited the offices of the Kenya Pipeline Company, which operates the pipeline.

They had told Odinga that the explosion was caused by a leak from the pipeline into nearby sewage, he said. Workers who answered the phones at their offices declined to give a comment or their names.

"There will be a proper investigation," Odinga pledged.

Kiraitu Murungi, Kenya's minister for energy, was unequivocal about the scale of the disaster, calling it "the worst accident that has occurred in energy in the history of this country."

In 2009, at least 120 people were killed when they were trying to scoop fuel spilled from a crashed petrol tanker in Kenya.

With files from the CBC