A bell rang. It was time for Class Five pupils in Kakamega Primary School, in Kenya’s western region, to go home.
But something went wrong, and a stampede ensued. In the aftermath, at least 14 schoolchildren – nine girls and five boys – died and dozens others were injured, some critically.
The victims were trampled by hundreds of the schoolchildren rushing in panic, the cause of which has not yet been confirmed.
“I was going downstairs after classes when I heard some boys behind me playfully push each other. It is something they often do.
“In no time, however, a commotion ensued and some of those who were on the staircase fell off. I lost my footing when pushed and other students fell on top of me.”
This is Alphaville Keng’ore’s account of the stampede on Monday evening, as told to the Kenyan newspaper The Standard.
The school’s narrow staircase from the third floor made the situation worse. The pupils stumbled and fell on each other as they pushed out of the building, the paper reported.
There were some reports that the children were running because a teacher had ordered them to leave quickly.
Some students told the Daily Nation newspaper that they had been barred from using one of the two staircases in the building, creating a surge.
They told the paper that it had been reserved for parents of Class Seven pupils who had come in for a meeting, saying that they started running away after a teacher had come to find them.
‘I found my daughter dead’
On Tuesday, a sombre mood engulfed the area, with hundreds of anxious parents and pupils and other locals milling around the school building.
Many just stared blankly while others pointed at the staircases, talking in hushed tones about what may have transpired, the BBC’s Mercy Juma reported.
Juliet Wuyichenga lost her nine-year-old daughter in the stampede. Her daughter had only joined the school when the new academic year began in January.
“I have no voice any more. My daughter June had been in this school for just three weeks. I found her dead. I am in pain because in the morning she was fine when we left each other. Then another pupil tells me she is dead.”
“It’s painful,” a teacher told a local TV station. “There is a student who was brought to me at two years, I have taught and seen her grow until Class Four.
“I feel very sad and it’s not just me. I stand in solidarity with the parents who have lost their children.”
Many of the students died from suffocation, crushed under the feet of running schoolchildren. Some suffered fractures and soft tissue injuries.
There were reports that some fell from the third floor of the building.
The injured are still receiving treatment at the Kakamega County Referral Hospital and a counselling centre has been set up for grieving parents.
There are a number of explanations about what may have happened, but officials have urged Kenyans to await the outcome of an investigation by the security agencies.
The school has been closed until Monday next week to allow the investigators to do their work.
Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto and Education Minister George Magoha were among the officials who visited the school on Tuesday.
Mr Magoha said that he had been to the school before, which he said was the best performing in the region, noting that he had observed the “orderliness” in which the students leave their classes “floor by floor”.
The education minister was perhaps addressing the issue of overcrowding in schools. On Tuesday, while at the school, he made it clear that he did not consider congestion to be the cause of the stampede.
“It is not about numbers, the head teacher was so much in control of the numbers when I was here so nobody can tell me it’s about the numbers,” he told the Daily Nation.
However the incident could raise questions about the safety of children in Kenya’s schools.
In September last year, eight pupils died and 69 were injured when a classroom collapsed at a primary school in Nairobi.
One of the questions that emerged at the time was the issue of overcrowding in schools, with a rising demand for education, especially since free primary school education was introduced by the government in 2003.
Even if overcrowding may not have been an issue in the latest tragedy, it remains an issue in many Kenyan schools.