Pilot describes daring rescue of lorry driver trapped in floodwaters

Daring helicopter rescue of driver trapped in raging river

The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust pilot who was seen in a viral clip rescuing a lorry driver trapped by floodwaters along the Galana-Kulalu causeway on Wednesday night has described his heroic act of saving the driver's life as dangerous.

Speaking exclusively to the Nation from the Trust's elephant nursery in Nairobi, Taru Carr-Hartley said he had to balance between hovering closely above the truck and supporting his younger brother, Roan Carr-Hartley, who at one point was hanging under the helicopter and on top of the truck as he helped the driver, James Rufus Kinyua, into the helicopter.

Roan was strapped into a harness attached to the helicopter and his older brother knew that a slight change in the distance between the helicopter and the truck would have caused a double tragedy. 

"I had to concentrate to keep the distance and height between the helicopter and the truck the same to give him time to help the gentleman into the helicopter and jump back in himself," he told the Nation yesterday.

Kinyua was driving his fuel truck from the Galana National Irrigation Board (NIB), where he had picked up fuel, when on his way back he encountered flooding caused by recent rains upstream.

"His lorry had been pushed sideways by the rising water and two of its wheels had come off the concrete embankment, wedging it in the middle. Help was called for and a tractor from NIB arrived, but by the time it arrived to pull the truck from where it was wedged, the water was still rising and had pushed the truck further sideways and into deeper water," recalls Tarus.

He recalls that by the time the helicopter arrived, the cabin was half full of water.

"It became a dangerous situation for the driver, who was alone at the time, but I think there was a second gentleman in the truck, but by the time it got stuck, he had managed to get out, but the driver stayed in to help pull it out, and obviously he did not expect it to rise too quickly," Taru said.

Helicopter Pilot Taru Carr-Hartley

Helicopter Pilot Taru Carr-Hartley covers up one of the choppers belonging to Sheldrick Wildlife Trust at the organizations offices based at the Nairobi National Park along Magadi Road on May 4, 2023. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

At around 4pm he received a call to rescue a lorry driver trapped in floodwaters and his brother Roan quickly jumped into the helicopter to join him.

"At around 4.30pm we received a call from our field manager in Galana, where SWT is working with KWS on conservation at Galana and Kulalu Ranch. Luckily we were able to scramble the aircraft as soon as possible and were there in about 45 minutes," he said.

The pilot says they found Kinyua looking extremely tired, frightened and with his phone switched off.

"I was told he had been there since 10am, in extreme fear I am sure. He was hanging half out of the window, lying on top of the truck, and I could see the windscreen was smashed and the whole cabin was filled with water," he recalls. 

Kinyua then began to move closer to the helicopter, making it easier for the two brothers to get him out of the scene.

Taru does not remember the exact words Kinyua used as he finally got into the helicopter because he had his head on, but he does remember hearing the words "Wow! Thank you!

"When he looked out the window, he could see crowds of people on both sides of the river, but no one was really able to save him, he was a bit overwhelmed by it all, but now he could see that it was over. He was safe now and I could feel a sense of gratitude and massive relief from him," Taru explained.

Kinyua was unable to immediately share what was going through his mind at the time, telling Nation he would get back to them later.

But in the viral clip, filmed by Roan with a camera strapped to his head, Kinyua was visibly shaken and relieved by the help he received.

The dam is being built along the crocodile-infested Sabaki River, which is also home to hippos.

Taru said he felt a deep sense of relief and joy when the mission was successful.

"There were fears I had when I was flying on the way there that he (Kinyua) would feel it's too late and try to jump in the river and swim because he doesn't know that help is coming, but I felt very lucky and privileged to be able to help and get him out of that situation," he added. 

He also acknowledged the messages of appreciation from Kenyans online.

"A big thank you also for the reaction of everybody and how Kenyans have seen this, recognised it and appreciated it. I appreciate that as well," he said.

SWT runs an aviation division that is involved in medical evacuations and rescue missions, particularly for rangers injured by wildlife and members of the communities living along the Tsavo Conservation Area.

Taru is a fixed-wing and helicopter pilot who has been flying since the age of 18 and now works as the Air and Field Manager for the department, which is based in Kaluki near Mtito Andei.