Kyanguli Fire Tragedy
In early March 2001, Davis Onyango Opiyo, then a 16-year-old form 3 student, approached Felix Mambo Ngumbao with a plan to burn down a dormitory in the school. Opiyo told Ngumbao that he, like many students in the school, did not like the new principal, David Mutiso Kiilu. Top of the list of complaints against the new administration was the low quality of food that they said was being provided. Some of the survivors later said that they suspected the administration's demands for unpaid school fees as well as a decision to cancel KCSE results over cheating by the Ministry of Education may have contributed to the tragedy. The two boys contributed Ksh. 600 to buy petrol at a nearby service station. On Saturday 24 March when the rest of the school had attended a school sports event, the two went to Machakos town and bought 15 liters of petrol. That night, some students complained to the school authorities that they smelt petrol coming from one of the dormitories. However, a search by the principal, the head boy and the night guard did not reveal anything.
Prior to the tragedy, there had been an unsuccessful attempt to torch the principal's office and the library. There had also been notes circulated in the school calling for a strike against the administration but the student body seemed not to be bothered by the call.
At around 1.00 am on 25 March, students were woken up by screams and fire from the dormitory. The night guard on duty later reported that that night, he spotted someone with a flash light near the dormitory. When he stopped the student, he realized that it was Felix Ngumbao. When questioned by the guard, Ngumbao said that he had gone to fetch water. The deputy principal also narrated that on the same night, he bumped into Ngumbao, took his admission number for punishment then let him go. The dormitory had a capacity of 130. A padlock on the main door as well as metal barriers placed on the windows prevented the students from escaping.
On 9 April 2001 Ngumbao and Opiyo were arraigned in court. They were charged with murder. The trial lasted for almost two years. In Ngumbao's written statement to the court, he admitted to contributing towards the purchase of the petrol but denied taking part in the arson. He said that he, too, like the other students, was woken up by screams.
Ngumbao initially confessed to taking part in the entire plot but later retracted his statement saying that he had given it under duress from police officers in Athi River. Judge Robert Mutitu, however, questioned why the suspects never brought this to his attention or that of the magistrate or the OCPD Athi River.
After two years of court proceedings, Judge Mutitu resigned from office. This was part of a government clean up of judges who had been implicated in various corruption scandals, an operation dubbed 'radical surgery'. Justice Nicholas Ombija took over the case. Ombija terminated the case on 4 December 2006 terming it a mistrial since Mutitu was being probed for corruption.
The school still retains the same name. The site of the burnt dormitory is no more and has been replaced by a grass lawn and timber, which serves as a memorial park. 58 of the students were buried in six mass graves in the school compound. On 3 March 2016, Justice Joseph Sergon of the High Court awarded parents of the victims Ksh. 40,900,000. Each family was to receive Ksh. 650,000 for pain and suffering. In his ruling, Justice Sergon said that the school, in its capacity as an agent of the state, had failed to prevent the fire, even though there had been two earlier attempts to set the school on fire.
Kyanguli Bereaved Parents Disaster Self-Care Group was formed after the tragedy to help bereaved parents deal with the psychological challenges of the tragedy.
On 24 February 2017, the parents held a protest in Machakos town against the amount that had been awarded as well as failure by their lawyer, Kioko Kilukumi, to effect the payments.
The Kenya government has not issued an official statement on the tragedy nor given an official explanation on the trial.
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- "Court awards Ksh.40M to Kyanguli fire victims".
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- "This is our story 15 years later - parents of Kyanguli arson victims » Capital News". 14 March 2016.
- Bereaved Kyanguli parents accuse lawyer of going mum, urge state to help The Star