Mwingi bus

Recovery operation on December 05, 2021 after a bus plunged into River Enziu in Mwingi, Kitui County on Saturday.

| Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

The Sh50 bus ride that ended in death

What you need to know:

  • Survivor says by the time of crossing, the bus was full, with a number of passengers standing.
  • The death toll now stands at 25, but more bodies  could still be trapped in the wreckage. 

Desperate travellers who boarded the ill-fated bus that plunged into River Enzai in Kitui County on Saturday had paid Sh50 each to cross the swollen river, adding to the count of victims who were still trapped in the wreckage by last night.

The stranded passengers had camped at the river bank for hours waiting for the raging waters to subside before the school bus ferrying Catholic Church choir members to a wedding ceremony arrived, as per multiple accounts by locals and relatives of the victims.

Having turned down offers by local divers to carry them across the river, a service for which the youthful men charge Sh200 per person, they instead opted for the cheaper option of paying Sh50 to board the school bus that was headed for a wedding at Nuu Township.

According to Bishop Joseph Mwongela, the head of the Catholic church in the region, 11 of the bodies recovered from the accident scene on Saturday were not members of the Muithi Museo Mwingi Catholic church choir. This means that they were among passengers picked up along the way and at the river bank.

They include two women and their two children, who had travelled from Garissa Town that fateful morning. 

Elizabeth Kaluki and Alice Ndanu Makau had arrived at the drift at about 8am and joined other travellers in waiting for the river’s water levels to subside, their cousin Ruth Kambua told Nation at the accident scene yesterday. 

"We talked on phone immediately they arrived at the River Enziu drift and they told me that they were unable to cross because the river was swollen," Ms Kambua said.

Ms Kaluki had with her her two-weeks daughter, Mutheu Muvisi, while Ms Ndanu was carrying her 18-month old daughter, Shantel Mwende. They were determined to cross the swollen river to pick public service vehicles stranded on the other side of the river to head to to their rural home at Ndooni Village, past Nuu Township.

"On phone, I discouraged them from wading through the river and even encouraged them to return to Garissa. We agreed they would inform me on their decision," said Ms Kambua, who runs a boutique at Garissa Township. 

"Witnesses told us they paid Sh50 each to cross the river," she added.

Dozens of trapped bodies

When news broke on Saturday afternoon that a bus had plunged into the river, Ms Kambua's heart skipped a beat. Her fears worsened when her cousins became unreachable on their phones. She frantically called more relatives before their worst fears were confirmed, when their bodies were recovered from the river of death.

"We easily identified the two bodies of the women at the mortuary. In fact they had worn dresses I had just sold them. We are now waiting for the recovery of the bodies of their children," an inconsolable Ms Kambua told the Nation at the accident scene yesterday. 

Efforts to retrieve dozens of bodies trapped in the River Enziu crossing continued yesterday amid slow response to the disaster and anxiety among the bereaved families.

The recovery operation which had been taken over by the Kenya Navy divers was hampered by poor coordination and lack of equipment.

It took more than 28 hours since the tragedy struck for two cranes from the National Youth Service to reach the scene, laying bare the country’s wanting disaster preparedness.

By the time the Kenya Defense Forces flew in divers in three military helicopters on Saturday evening, local divers had already rescued 12 survivors and retrieved 22 bodies from the bus, which was by then submerged in the raging waters.

The KDF team suspended the operation when darkness set in, resuming yesterday morning.

It was not until 4pm when two more bodies were retrieved from the underneath, with the delay in getting the bus out causing anxiety among the affected families.

Agitated crowds bitterly complained over the helplessness and delay in retrieving the bodies, and openly demanded that the local divers be allowed to continue with the recovery operation.

"Until government officials suspended the rescue and recovery operation, our local divers had rescued 10 people and recovered 23 bodies. The navy and the police should allow our local divers to continue with the work," said Mr Onesmus Masya.

Mwingi bus

Recovery operation on December 05, 2021 after a bus plunged into River Enziu in Mwingi, Kitui County on Saturday.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

At some point, relatives were held back by security officers as they attempted to dive into the waters in search of their loved ones.

Kitui governor Charity Ngilu who arrived at the scene in the morning had a difficult time calming the agitated crowds, angered at the slow pace of the recovery efforts as she mobilised county government equipment to retrieve the school bus.

Efforts by the county fire brigade to pull the bus out of the river bed were fruitless.

The anxiety was worsened by conflicting reports on the actual number of passengers traveling in the ill-fated bus and the unknown number of unaccounted-for persons.

To calm the grieving families, Mrs Ngilu distributed loaves of bread, soda and water; as catholic priests joined in consoling them through a hurriedly organised worship session. 

The recovery of two bodies brought the death toll to 25, amid reports that about 30 people may still be trapped in the bus wreckage that according to the divers was caked in mud.

Governor Ngilu painstakingly explained to the crowd that the recovery mission had entered a delicate stage that required heavy equipment, which were only available to the National Disaster Management Unit. 

"Please be patient, we are sparing no effort to ensure the bus is removed from underneath the river," she pleaded. 

Soon after the two cranes arrived around 4:30pm, a convoy of Wiper politicians led by former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka arrived at the River crossing.

The team, which included MPs Makali Mulu (Kitui Central), Irene Kasalu (Kitui Women Rep), Kitui Senator Enoch Wambua, former Senator David Musila  and former Governor Julius Malombe, joined the residents in desperately waiting for recovery of the bus.

Bishop Joseph Mwongela of Kitui Catholic Diocese revealed that the choir members aboard the bus numbered about 28, but the number of relatives of the bridal party with their children was unknown.
A number of travelers who were stranded at the river bank also jumped into the bus to be ferried across the river.

Joint requiem mass

If accounts by some of the survivors is anything to go by, about 30 persons remained unaccounted for by Sunday evening.

According to Simon Kea, who survived the tragedy, the bus had about 40 passengers when it left Mwingi town on Saturday morning for the wedding ceremony at Nuu area.

Mr Kea, a nurse at Tei wa Yesu Mission Hospital in Kyuso explained that the bus had about 10 empty seats before reaching the Enziu river crossing, but was fully packed while crossing with more than 15 other passengers standing.

“We were about 40 passengers when we left Mwingi town in the morning with about 10 empty seats, but as we were crossing the bus was full with more than 15 passengers standing,” a terrified Mr Kea narrated to the Nation.

The group of travelers who joined the trip and majority of whom are believed to be still trapped in the wreckage were heading to different destinations. 

This confusion puts the figure of passengers to around seventy, but with no official verification so far.

The County Government, the Catholic Church and the Kenya Red Cross have jointly set up information centers where those with missing relatives are requested to register in a bid to account for all the victims of the tragedy.

According to Governor Ngilu, the information desks were also serving as counselling centers.

“We call upon anyone who believes his or relative was in the ill-fated bus to come forward and provide details so that we can account for every person. The Church should also pray incessantly and help in comforting the bereaved,” said Mrs Ngilu.

Bishop Mwongela said the Catholic Church was planning a joint requiem mass for the victims at a date to be agreed upon with the affected families once all the bodies are recovered.