Moments before the school bus plunged into the notorious Enziu River in Mwingi East area of Kitui County, the Mwingi Catholic Choir danced on the river bank as they rehearsed the songs they intended to present at the wedding ceremony.
Oblivious of the death trap just meters away, members of St Cecilia Catholic Choir sang and performed in circles wearing matching long green dresses with yellow ribbons.
The catholic faithful were eager to reach their destination – a wedding ceremony for parents of one of their choir members. They had waited for more than two hours for the river waters to subside.
They arrived at the river at around 10:30 only to be kept waiting until 1:30pm when they decided to cross the river. Little did they know that they would perish together in the school bus.
Before they decided to cross, there was disagreement over whether it was safe for the bus to cross the swollen river. The bus driver, who was among the victims, insisted he wasn’t familiar with the Enziu River bridge.
According to Mr Simon Kea who survived the tragedy, most passengers were impatient. They claimed that they would be late for the wedding ceremony at Nuu area, some 30 kilometres away.
Mr Kea, a nurse at Tei wa Yesu Mission Hospital in Kyuso explained that the driver was reluctant to cross but yielded to pressure from the passengers.
“A while ago, two matatus which ply that route and some tractors had successfully crossed the flooded river, prompting the passengers to believe it was safe for their bus to follow suit” he said adding they waited for more than three hours.
Some travellers who were stranded at the river bank jumped into the bus to be ferried across and possibly find their way to the wedding, but it was not to be.
“We were about 40 passengers when we left Mwingi town in the morning with about 10 empty seats, but as we were crossing the 51-seater bus was full with more than 15 passengers standing,” a terrified Mr Kea told Nation.Africa.
The stranded group was also heading to the wedding ceremony.
As the bus tried to navigate the raging waters, it landed in a ditch on the left side edge of the bridge which had been avoided by the matatu drivers. It then slid downwards and overturned before it submerged into the raging waters.
In a fraction of second, more than 60 people were drowning as people watched helplessly by the river bank. The tragedy captured on video by onlookers showed the bus crossing the flooded river being swept away as screams rent the air.
The video which went viral moments after the 1:30pm incident showed brave young men diving into the water to rescue passengers trapped in the bus which had already sunk in the river.
Standing on the top of the bus, the divers started pulling the drowning passengers out of the vehicle. They managed to rescue 10 people. Mr Kea was among the lucky survivors.
“It was a real encounter with death. We were all submerged deep in the waters. I only felt a hand forcefully grab my shoulder and pull me out through the bus window. I’m just thankful to God for sparing my life,” said Mr Kea.
In about one hour, 20 bodies had been retrieved from the school bus including that of the driver – who had been hired to take the bridal party to the ceremony.
More than 30 people, including Catholic Choir members, were still unaccounted for by the time of going to press, even after the Kenya Defense Forces landed in three helicopters to help in the rescue mission.
Twenty three bodies have so far been retrieved from the bus while ten people have been rescued and rushed to Mwingi Level Four Hospital for emergency treatment.
According to Kitui County Police Commander Leah Kithei, the 51-seater bus belonging to Mwingi Junior Seminary, a Catholic run private school was ferrying the choir members to Nuu area from Mwingi town to attend a wedding ceremony.
“We are hoping to rescue as many people as we can. Sadly, we have recovered 23 bodies from the scene and 10 survivors rescued alive and rushed to Mwingi hospital", she said.
Among the passengers in the ill-fated bus were members of the bridal party including a family of a woman, her entire household of three children and two grandchildren.
Ms Kithei said the Kenya Defense Forces had been deployed to help in rescue efforts and expressed hopes of rescuing more survivors.
The identities of those who perished could not be immediately established but police confirmed that among the dead was Jane Mutua, daughter to the bridegroom and three children.
The choir members were to perform at the event to solemnise the marriage union of the parents of one of the members.
Eye witness told Nation.Africa that the bus was carrying excess passengers of unknown number and the bus driver was under pressure to deliver the bridal group to the wedding in time.
Mr Christopher Musili, one of the choir members who survived the tragedy also said the bus had 65 passengers on board.
“I am just lucky to have been pulled out by the divers” said the 27 year old Mr Musili who is a boda boda operator in Mwingi town.
He said that many passengers were trapped as they attempted to get out through the bus windows.
Mr Justus Musyoka, an official of Mwingi Catholic Parish who rushed to the scene upon receiving the sad news said there were disagreements between the bus driver and the passengers who insisted on being taken to the ceremony.
“We have established that some passengers were putting pressure on the bus driver to cross the flooded river,” Mr Musyoka said.
Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu and her deputy Gideon Wathe cancelled some events and rushed to the scene to coordinate the rescue efforts.
The spot where the bus slipped off the River drift is a notorious death trap, where many vehicles have been swept off.