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Another death at ferry puts KFS in a spot

Ruth Mutinda, widow of John Mutinda, who plunged into the Indian Ocean, is consoled by a friend in Mombasa, yesterday. [Gideon Maundu, Standard]

A 46-year-old man drove his car into the deep waters of the Likoni Channel in the wee hours of yesterday. Four hours later, his body was pulled out of his maroon saloon car from the bed of the sea.

At the time of the incident, witnesses say, none of the five vessels run by the Kenya Ferry Services that move passengers from Mombasa to the South Coast were operational. 

Now, authorities are looking into the possibility that John Mutinda’s last ride may have been a suicide mission. A family spokesperson told journalists that the ill-fated drive started with a mysterious phone call at around 4am. 

“Mutinda received a phone call and said he had to leave immediately,” Bernard Kyeti, the family spokesperson said, adding that they would issue a more comprehensive statement at a later date. 

Unusually early

Independent interviews by the Sunday Standard show that some minutes to 4am, the househelp in Mutinda’s house noticed noise from somewhere in the house. Her boss was up unusually early. But it is what happened next that made her raise an alarm. 

Mutinda had driven off at a high speed.

So she woke up Ruth Mueni, Mutinda’s wife. But when she got up, her husband had already left. But the two women, knowing that it would take some time before the car crosses to the other side, decided to follow him to the ferry. When they got there, news of a car plunging into the water had already started going around. 

Family members said Mutinda, who owned and operated a Container Freight Station, had woken up in a jolt saying his late father was calling him and he was answering him. He left his home in Majengo Mapya Estate, where they have lived for 10 years, in neither shirt nor shoes. Just in a pair of trousers.

Sound asleep in the house were the couple’s three children. A son, who sat his KCSE this year and twin boys. All of them were probably wished goodnight by their father, but when they woke up, they did not have a father.

Two of them are too young to comprehend what such an event means to their lives and that of their mother. 

No one really knows exactly what happened but security cameras capture his vehicle, a red Toyota Allion approaching the paying booths some minutes past 4am.

However, after a few seconds, the car then swerves to the right, drives past the paying booths while overlapping other vehicles that were ahead of it and makes a beeline for the front of the queue. 

In a matter of seconds, the vehicle plunges straight into the sea. At the time of the incident, there was no ferry being boarded. 

“The motorist went past the police check and failed to pay the ferry toll charges,” Kenya Ferry Managing Director Bakari Gowa said. “The staff approached him but he sped off.” 

When this happened, the ramp controller alerted the coxswain who in turn alerted the control tower and a rescue boat was activated. The marine police and officers from the Kenya Navy joined the rescue mission.  By 7am, as the daily ferry traffic started to pile up, a tail uncommon for Saturday traffic had already started to form. Passenger service vehicles from South Coast were forced to use alternative routes.

Although the ferry services resumed soon after, travelers could be heard conversing in low tones, asking each other how long the rescue mission would take. Every answer was grounded by the 13 days it took to retrieve the bodies of Mariam Kigenda and her daughter Amanda Mutheu in September. 

Mutinda’s body was retrieved by divers from the Kenya Navy after an hour and a half. A marked improvement in recovery efforts, but another damning indictment to the management of the crucial crossing that links the North Coast and the South Coast as the country heads towards the festive season. 

A few minutes to midday, Mutinda’s car was pulled out -- just six metres under water, and slightly still ashore. 

Witnesses say divers came to the scene at 7am, some two to three hours after the incident. It is estimated that the human body can only stay underwater for about 10 minutes. 

By the time the divers arrived, the situation had changed from a rescue to a recovery mission. 

Yesterday’s accident exposes existing gaps on the safety of the ferry as well as motorised and non-motorised traffic. 

Vehicle searches

There are no vehicle searches. The body scanners installed at the pedestrian crossing hardly work. At peak hours, the few security personnel are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of passengers. 

Every day, it is estimated that close to 300,000 people and 6,000 vehicles cross the channel, with an ever present danger looming over their heads. 

“The security guards are failing to do their jobs. We want the company currently contracted to step aside and we get another company to manage the security of ferry users,” Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nassir said.

Security officials led by Mombasa County Commissioner Gilbert Gitiyo, County Police Commander Augustine Nthumbi and other security officials were at the scene supervising recovery mission. 

Mr Gitiyo said an inquiry has been opened to establish what transpired leading to tragedy. 

“We have directed the police to start investigations to establish circumstances that led to the incident,” said the county boss who is also security chairman. 

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