NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – A five-story building collapsed Monday in central Nairobi with more than 280 construction workers inside, killing at least seven people and injuring more than 70, witnesses and officials said.
Rescuers dug into the rubble with their bare hands while the injured were loaded into any available car to be taken to hospitals. The hand of one trapped person could be seen waving for help from under a concrete beam.
Tens of thousands of people ran to the site, clogging roads and climbing atop the debris to watch the rescue. Riot police used truncheons to beat back the crowds and to clear roads for emergency vehicles
At the same time, however, police called for anyone with emergency training to come to the scene and help the rescue. Kenyatta General Hospital appealed for blood donations.
Dozens of soldiers, firefighters, police officers and Red Cross workers responded, using crow bars and metal cutters to free those trapped.
By nightfall, most of the onlookers had gone home and rescuers set up lights and began digging for survivors at five different places around the building. Meanwhile, a large bus with apparently failed brakes crashed through the medical triage area, injuring one medic and slamming into a parked ambulance.
Abbas Gullet, the secretary-general of the Kenya Red Cross, said the British government had agreed to send a special team with rescue dogs and high-tech equipment, due to arrive Tuesday morning.
Earlier, Health Minister Charity Ngilu had appealed for calm.
“We have doctors and health workers who have been mobilized, so it is now under control,” she said at the scene.
An Associated Press reporter saw three bodies at the construction site shortly after the collapse. Four others died while being treated, a hospital spokesman said.
Survivor Patrick Opiyo said he saw eight dead at the scene, although his figure could not be confirmed.
More than 70 people were taken to Kenyatta General, where six were in critical condition, said Dr. Samuel Ngiru, who works in the trauma department.
“If we do not get more blood, people will die,” he said.
One of the construction workers said that 280 men were on the site. Another, who would not give his name, said an inspector had warned last week that the structure was unsafe and they were trying to stabilize the building.
“We saw the building sink slowly and then sway from side to side. As we saw this, we fled the area. We never got that far _ it collapsed,” said Serengo Wekesa, who had been working at a neighboring building.
Wekesa said several women had set up stalls inside the building to sell food to workers and that they had their children with them. Ngiru said a 2-year-old boy was among the injured.
One worker, James Ofunyi, said the workers were on their lunch break, with many asleep in the building when it collapsed.
“I was taking a nap after having had lunch when I heard someone shouting to run, but I didn’t get downstairs fast enough because the building started falling,” Ofunyi said. “I jumped to the other side.”
Immediately after the collapse, hundreds of bystanders formed lines to carry away chunks of concrete and wooden scaffolding, which a front loader then pushed away from the site.
Two survivors were pulled out more than an hour after the collapse, prompting the crowds to erupt in cheers. But there were fears that others were caught between the floors that collapsed on top of one another.
Most of injuries came during the collapse, but some were hurt in the stampede that followed, when Nairobi’s normally crowded streets turned into chaos, Ngiru said.
Evans Omolo, 11, was knocked to the ground and trampled.
“I was coming home from school when I heard a whoosh and people started running, and I was pushed over,” he said, clutching his broken arm at the hospital. “I couldn’t see what was happening, but people were jumping on me as they ran past.”
The lower floors of the building were filled with construction workers when it suddenly collapsed, said one of the laborers, Patrick Opiyo, who was digging for survivors. Parts of the exterior walls were still standing.
“This is all about building standards,” said army Brig. George Kyaka, who led the military response. “But those who are alive are the priority now.”
Vice President Moody Awori visited the scene to check on the rescue effort.
“It is very important that we put in place mechanisms to ensure that only properly designed buildings are built,” Awori said, declining to comment further.