Explosion rocks newspaper office -- and a journalist's instinct kicks in

Jan 292009
  • Explosion in downtown Nairobi

Editors Note: Fire in downtown Nairobi causes scare.The first time the lights went out during this morning’s news meeting, it was just a minor annoyance. Ditto the second time. After all, at Nation Media Group headquarters in the heart of downtown Nairobi, you can expect a powerful generator to kick in quickly whenever there’s a power outage. It’s already happened several times during my six-month tenure as a Knight Health Journalism Fellow based at the Nation Centre. Besides, I spent half of 2007 living in Northern Uganda, where you learn to build your schedule around large blocks of time with absolutely no electricity.

But when the power failed for a third time at the Nation Centre, everyone started to wonder if there was some sort of major power grid complication. So naturally, when a loud explosion occurred around 3:15 PM, most people concluded it could have been caused by an overburdened generator. I was sitting at my computer editing copy when I noticed most of my colleagues running to the windows to see what had caused the commotion outside.

Less than 10 minutes later, Living Magazine Editor Ruth Lubembe came running through the newsroom shouting, “Get out, get out!” That’s when I noticed the smell of something burning in the air, and gathered my belongings. The third floor newsroom evacuation was surprisingly orderly until we reached the first floor lobby, which is usually flooded by sunshine during daylight hours.

That’s when the gasping started…the view out the lobby glass doors was as dark as night, the sky choked by thick black smoke.

But even that didn’t prepare me for the horrifying sight of flames leaping through the air less than half a block from the back entrance of the Nation Centre. They were coming from the Nakumatt Grocery/Department store on the corner of Kimathi Street, opposite the Sarova Stanley Hotel. In fact, I soon learned that the entire end of the block housing the Nation Centre was engulfed in flames.

As a journalist who just happened to be carrying her digital camera in her purse, my instincts made me capture some of the disturbing images, once I got over the initial shock. While navigating my way through the crowd, I also couldn’t help noticing the demeanor of most people gathered to watch the flames. Could memories of similar images during Kenya’s horrific post-election violence last year be causing so many people to seem almost indifferent about the scene? And then I remembered something else…in August of 1998, a terrorist car bomb demolished the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi, killing 212 people and injuring nearly 4,000. Clearly, Nairobians have seen more than their share of terrible conflagrations, which could have accounted for some of the response.

Only when steady winds fanned the flames, causing them to shoot high in the sky, did the thousands of onlookers appear to be concerned about their personal safety. In fact, I was startled to see most people moving toward the scene of the fire, when my own instinct was to head in the other direction.

After 23 years as a professional journalist, I spent some difficult moments debating whether I should find a relatively safe yet close perch to plant myself and record the event. But eventually, my fears about being stranded in a massive crowd with no way to reach my apartment in suburban Westlands won out. I threaded my way out of the downtown area and found a taxi home, where I downloaded my photos and posted a few on Facebook, sent some emails and placed a few calls.

Ironically, I was deeply concerned that friends and family might see news about the fire on some major news network or online and be worried about my safety. That concern deepened when my Washington, DC colleagues shared reports that the explosion and fire might have been caused by terrorist activity. (At this point, it’s impossible to pinpoint the cause, so I’m refusing to entertain that prospect.)

By the time I reached home, the fire had been raging for about 45 minutes, but the three major local networks had not yet managed to transmit live images. They had all scrolled news of the blaze at the bottom of the screen. About thirty minutes later, NTV (owned by Nation Media Group) was televising live, uninterrupted coverage of the emergency response and crowd reaction. The government owned network, KBC, and KTN, owned by the Standard Media Group, were splitting their coverage between the proceedings of Parliament and the fire.

So far, I’ve been watching CNN, Sky News, BBC and Al Jazeera for the past few hours, and there’s been no news of the explosion and fire. Am I being overly sensitive in suggesting that if a major fire and explosion had occurred in Paris, London, or Washington, DC, regular newscasts would have been interrupted to make mention of it? I have to remember that the world is one week away from the one of the most historic Presidential inaugurations in history….and that 70,000 job layoffs occurred in the past few days, and that the world economic summit in Davos just started. And there’s also renewed fighting in Gaza. Let’s just say the global news hole is pretty tightly packed these days, so I probably shouldn’t read more into it than that. In a slower news cycle, the Kenyan fire probably would have made the cut.

By 7 PM Nairobi time, the blaze was under control, and 99 of 103 Nakumatt personnel were accounted for. There’s still no official word on possible casualties, or how many customers were in the store at the time of the fire. There’s also still no word on what may have caused the fire, though the prevailing theory is that it was an electrical malfunction.

Still, the incident is a frightening reminder that nothing in our world today can be taken for granted, when a flickering light can be fraught with far-reaching geo-political ramifications.