Leaking 'flammable substance' caused city fire, witnesses say

Sparks from welding torches came from the second floor of a city centre commercial complex, making contact with highly flammable substances that ignited one of the wildest fires in the recent history of the City of Kigali, witnesses said.
People remove property from the Muhima building as firefighters battle the raging fires yesterday. (John Mbanda)
People remove property from the Muhima building as firefighters battle the raging fires yesterday. (John Mbanda)

Sparks from welding torches came from the second floor of a city centre commercial complex, making contact with highly flammable substances that ignited one of the wildest fires in the recent history of the City of Kigali, witnesses said.

The Tuesday evening fire lasted for over 15 hours as a combined force of Police, military and airport fire brigades struggled to contain it.

The affected building is located in the city centre opposite Chez Venant, a few metres away from the main city roundabout.

The fires started from stores in the building’s basement and spread to other parts of the building leaving little to be saved, said Joseph Gakwavu, who was at the scene when the fire started and had returned yesterday morning.

The affected building is owned by Jean-Léonard Nsanzumuhire, while the store where the fire started from was being rented by Ronald Gashumba.

The two could not be reached for comment by press time.

However, Emmanuel Kabera, the store manager at the burnt building, said there were highly inflammable liquids in stores including 250 drums of paint thinner and 45 drums of Acetylene, a substance used in gas cylinders.

Another witness with an office on the same building told The New Times that some of the drums in the stores were damaged while being offloaded from a truck days ago and had been leaking.

“Through the leakage, the flammable substance made contact with the welding sparks and set off the fire,” said the tenant who preferred to remain anonymous.

Both Police and military personnel had spent Tuesday night at the scene battling the inferno.

Futile effort

The City of Kigali Police spokesperson, Supt. Modeste Mbabazi, said despite the fact that Police responded in time, putting out the fire became too hard even when there were joint efforts with both the airport and military fire brigades.

“The substances were highly flammable. We were also faced with a challenge of access to the stores since they are in the basement. Our efforts to put out the fire were constrained as more drums were bursting and blowing up others,” he said.

He, however, added that although all the drums were burnt, firefighters managed to make a breakthrough and contained the fire after 15 hours.

The inferno left the building cracked and Police advised neighbouring occupants to evacuate so as not to be affected in case the building collapsed.

“We discovered that there is too much carelessness from both the owner of the building and the one who operates the store,” Mbabazi said.

“Although the merchandise in the store was insured, the building was not and there is no way someone should store such flammable products in a building that is used for both commercial and residential purposes.”

The city fire came just a day after another inferno gutted a newly built three-storey commercial complex in Muhanga District, leaving merchandise valued at millions of francs charred.

Three months ago, fire gutted several structures around the country, including an industrial building, prisons and commercial building.

(Some of the fire outbreaks around the country this year)

This prompted the government to come up with several measures in dealing with fire outbreaks and set up a taskforce composed of Rwanda National Police, the then Energy, Water and Sanitation Authority,

Rwanda Housing Authority and the Ministry of Infrastructure to investigate the possible causes.

The team, that was headed by Police, was to come up with a report from the investigations.

The New Times understands that the report is complete but could not ascertain detail there of the findings by press time.

To mitigate the fires, Police recently announced plans to procure six other fire engines before the end of the year and 10 others early next year, to reinforce its response to disasters in Kigali and other parts of the country.

One of the alternatives proposed by experts in firefighting is having multiple water hydrants located in several spots around the country.

The recent spate of fires raised concerns of lack of enough hydrants since fire-fighting vehicles run out of water at a critical moment.

Currently, there are only two hydrants that fit Police’s hosepipes; one at I&M Rwanda (former BCR) headquarters and the other at Camp Kigali.

Other hydrants, including the one at Kigali City Tower, do not match Police vehicles’ hosepipes, which makes the firefighters unable to refill in time.

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