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44 perish, scores displaced in night of roaring terror

20 children among thosekilled after Patel Dam in Solaibroke its walls, sweepingeverything on its path

Noah Cheploen @cheploennoah

Disaster of unthinkable magnitude struck in the night, killing at least 44 people after a swollen dam burst its banks and overrun the densely populated Solai trading centre in Nakuru county.

It was horror in pitch darkness and pouring rain when families who were just preparing to go to sleep—and others asleep­—were overcome by an ominous roar of a thundering flood, not knowing a dam in Patel coffee and dairy farm where they worked had melted down on the village on lower ground.

Survivors who made it out of the deluge had no words to describe the powerful flood that demolished their houses and carried people and their belongings down into a valley where most of the dead were buried in mud. It was feared the figure of casualties could rise as about 40 people were still missing, with rescue efforts by a multi-agency team continuing overnight.

The scene at Solai shopping centre was a mudbath with grotesque shapes of demolished houses and bodies buried among felled wattle trees. Security teams comprising police officers, National Youth Service and the military had a hard time digging up fallen trees to retrieve bodies, many that were badly damaged.

Many families whose members eke out a living in the vast Patel farm were in their houses when one of nine monstrous dams built for irrigation broke its walls letting water to cascade to the village sitting on lower ground. Men, women, children, old and young, chicken, goats, sheep, wooden houses and crops were all swept downwards in a roaring commotion of the river of death.

“People were screaming and calling, you could hear cries of children as we just found ourselves in water, we didn’t know what was happening. It was just water and darkness,” said a woman who was rescued by soldiers in the morning.

She said she survived because storming water swept her to a tree that she clung to then climbed up. “After a short while it was all quiet, but I could hear people still screaming and calling from far down the valley. It was so dark I could not see anything,” she said.

And as the first rays of sunlight shone above Solai hills, signalling a new day, the full impact of the horror was visible. The initial rescue first retrieved 21 bodies from the sludge, rubble and ruins of houses. Utensils and jerrycans were strewn all over.

A sack of maize here and a door there, the whole place had been turned upside down in a night of terror whose deadly echoes will be felt for years. George Wanjala, a survivor, described the tragedy as “hell on earth”.

By last evening, at least 41 survivors were hospitalised 35 of whom were discharged and six remained admitted. Four were admitted to Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital and two to Bahati sub-county hospital. About 40 people were still unaccounted for.

According to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations Rift Valley regional coordinator Gideon Kibunja, out of the 44 fatalities, 20 were children and 24 adults.

“It is a disaster because most people were asleep when the tragedy occurred and their houses were swept away,” a visibly disturbed Kibunja told journalists at the scene. Kenya Red Cross Society estimated that up to 500 families were affected in the tragedy that has left more questions begging.

Property worth of millions of shillings was destroyed as the wall of water washed away most structures in its way within a three-kilometre radius. Solai Boys’ High School and Patel Day Secondary School were closed indefinitely although no fatalities were reported among students.

A contingent comprising county disaster management team, Kenya Defence Forces, police, and Red Cross started the rescue as the country woke up to the shocking news.

The Patel farm is the main source of livelihood for locals. Yesterday, terrified grieving villagers narrated the traumatic events that followed a huge roar from the dam located upstream, leaving more than 2,000 people left homeless. Another survivor, Ngugi Njoroge, said he and his family were having dinner when a “we heard a bang and water washed away our home.”

“I was with my parents and my younger brother. I don’t know where they are. I was carried away by the water but I was lucky as I clung to a tree until the water subsided,” he said from his hospital bed. Miriam Karimi said she could not find any of her three children, including her four-year-old son.

“When we heard noises, we thought it was raining heavily nearby. I’m so confused. I hope they are alive,” she said. Gordon Odhiambo, 32, and his wife Roselyn, 22, were watching television when disaster struck. The raging floods swept their house and by dawn only the roof was left hanging.

Everything inside it had been swept away. “We lost everything but we’re lucky to be alive. It was a narrow escape for us,” said Gordon. Another unidentified woman was devastated as she tried to trace her four children aged eight, five, three and another barely two months old.

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