SECTIONS

Enziu River tragedy: Survivors recall the day 33 fellow wedding day travellers drowned

Photos of River Enziu bus tragedy victims at a requiem at St Joseph's Mwingi seminary in Kitui County, December 2021. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

Survivors of the River Enziu bus tragedy in which 33 people lost their lives on December 4 last year after their vehicle plunged into the flooded river are still struggling to cope with the traumatic experience, one year down the line.

The accident claimed 16 members of Mwingi Catholic Church’s St Cecilia choir and two Catholic brothers who were on their way to Nuu Catholic Church to attend a wedding for one of the choir member’s parents.

The Kitui Catholic Diocese, through Bishop Joseph Mwongela, has organised a memorial service for the departed choir members and other victims of the tragedy that will be held today at Mwingi Catholic Church.

Simon Kea, who survived the accident by whisker, says it has not been easy coping with the bad memories, especially after losing a team that was dedicated to serving the Lord in the church.

“Those memories are still there and they are not fading anytime soon,” Kea said when The Saturday Standard caught up with him in Mwingi town. He said the choir lost all its officials in the tragedy except the treasurer.

Of the 23 choir members who had boarded the bus that morning, only seven survived, and Kea was one of them. He is currently the chairman of the choir and believes there is a reason why God saved his life on that dark day. When the other choir members elected him to take over as the chairman of the choir, Kea says he heard God speak to him.

“I asked myself why have they chosen me, young as I am to lead them. Could this have been the reason why God saved my life, to serve Him?’” he posed, revealing that the accident has made him more reflective in his faith. “It got me deep into faith. I no longer take things for granted,” he said.

He recalls the first Sunday after the disaster and the gloom that enveloped the church. “We were like statues. We had no energy to sing,” he remarked.   

So how did he escape from the jaws of death? Kea says on that day and at that moment when the bus was sinking in the murky waters with him inside, he saw death, but prayed for a miracle.

“I prayed for a miracle and it happened in the water,” he says, and momentarily goes silent for a moment to reflect on the distressing experience.

He recalled that when they got to the river, they found it flooded, with huge crowds on both sides. It was a market day at the busy Nuu market. With vehicles parked on the river banks, the choir members alighted and engaged in what they knew best - belting songs and dancing as they waited for the angry waters to recede. Unbeknown to them, danger lurked in the water.

 Retrieval of the ill-fated bus at River Enziu in Kitu County. [Philip Muasya, Standard} 

Kea remembers that a mini bus full of passengers appeared from the side of Nuu and slowly tore into the flooded river through an underground bridge. They watched in awe as the driver manoeuvred the vehicle safely to the other side. Moments later, another matatu came and just like the first one, crossed the river effortlessly.

The choir members were now convinced it was safe to cross. “We had a discussion on whether to cross or not. Finally, we reached a consensus and agreed to cross,” he says.

They got into the school bus, which also took in other people who wanted to cross to the other side and the driver made a daring attempt as a group of onlookers cheered them on. Then something snapped.

The bus’s front left wheel slid into a gorge where the heavy currents had eaten up parts of the underground bridge, forcing the bus to tilt dangerously. There was wailing and screaming as the vehicle slowly toppled over and fell into the flooded river on its left side.

Kea was seated on the right side and he momentarily reached for the window. He opened it and thrust himself out. He was now atop the bus that was slowly sinking right before his eyes. From his position, a terrified Kea could hear his colleagues gasping for breath, wailing, and calling for help.

“I knew this is death and I really prayed. I told God it was not yet my time to go,” he says.

But with zero skills to swim and the bus slowly getting swallowed by the water, Kea was at a crossroads. Does he jump into the water and drown or does he sink with the bus?

By now local divers with their unrivalled skill to swim in deadly rivers had launched themselves into the river to save the drowning passengers. One of the divers was Kea’s saving grace.

He recalls the diver ordering him to dive into the water so that he could grab him. Terrified by the thought but with no choice, he did as advised and the skillful diver saved him.  

“I jumped into the water. Remember I do not know how to swim but he quickly got hold of me and swam with me to safety,” he says.

 Retrieval of the ill-fated bus at River Enziu in Kitu County. Left, former Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu. [Philip Muasya, Standard} 

When he was safely on the land, the sad reality tore him apart. Other divers were now retrieving bodies and placing them on the river bank. Only a small part of the bus was visible.

“I saw the bodies lined up and I could not believe it. It was like a bad dream. I actually thought at some point they would wake up,” he says, revealing that he has had to undergo counseling to be able to cope. His colleagues were not as lucky. Sixteen of them had lost their lives in a flash, including two Catholic brothers one of whom was the driver of the ill fated bus.

From the accident scene, Kea telephoned his mother in Makueni County and informed her that they had had an accident but he was safe. Then his phone went off until the following day.

“When I bumped into my sister in the town, I thought it was a ghost. She had come all the way to look for me. On seeing me, she burst into tears,” says Kea, noting that relatives of the victims had travelled from far and wide to search for their kin.

By this time, the country was awash with the sad news of the horrific accident and a video clip of the bus full of passengers sinking into the river was going viral.

Mary Katanu was among the few female survivors of the accident and it evidently took a great toll on her.

Katanu, who teaches at Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC), Mwingi Campus, says that the accident left her asthmatic, in addition to affecting her lungs. She also suffers from constant chest pains. The accident has left her financially drained.

“I am constantly on medication. The cost of inhalers is a huge financial burden,” she says, adding that in a month she spends Sh7,000 on inhalers alone.

Despite the health challenges, Katanu, which means happy one in the Kamba language, is a warm, bubbly woman who likes to crack jokes. However, re-living the traumatic River Enziu experience strikes her raw nerves. During our interview, she broke down severally and sobbed.

Unlike Kea, she sat on the left side of the bus and when it overturned, she was among the passengers who found themselves deep in the murky waters, helpless.

Katanu only recalls the screams and ensuing pandemonium and everything else going dark. She lost consciousness in the water. When she came to, she had been pulled out by the local divers. And when she saw bodies being retrieved, she broke down and wailed. I would probably have been one of them, she thought to herself.

A vehicle crosses River Enziu in Mwingi, Kitui County, where 33 people lost their lives on December 4, 2021. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

“I saw many bodies being retrieved from the river. It was unbelievable. Moments earlier, we were a happy lot and now death!” she said.

The arduous journey to her treatment started right there at the river bank where she underwent first aid before being driven to Mwingi Level IV Hospital. After a day, her condition worsened and she he was transferred to Nairobi West Hospital for specialised care. Here, her lungs failed and she was put on oxygen and admitted at the ICU for 10 days. The financial toll hit her family hard. On admission, the hospital asked for Sh300,000 and by the time she was being discharged, the bill had skyrocketed to Sh1.7 million.

“I lost 30 per cent of my lung capacity. I have constant chest pains and I am now asthmatic. I did not have these ailments before the accident. I am constantly in and out of hospitals,” Katanu says, then breaks into tears.

“But I thank God I am alive. God has a reason why I am alive today,” she adds, before breaking down again. She recalls her daughter fainting at the hospital when she went to see her. Her doctors have suggested specialised treatment to clean her lungs but she says the cost is out of reach. At times, she coughs pellets of sand.

Her employer is understanding, she says, and when she is unable to cope, she is given days off. “Even in the choir, sometimes I get asthmatic attacks but the members have been very supportive. I treat others but it has now come to a point where I personally need help,” says Katanu who holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. What gives her the strength to live?

“Prayers. I keep praying to God to reveal to me the reason why He saved my life in an accident where most of our colleagues died. Meanwhile, I will continue serving Him in the church,” says the soprano singer.

Has she been to River Enziu ever since? “No and never. I do not even want to hear that name,” she says with a firm gesture.

Kea, on the other hand, says he has developed an incurable phobia for bridges, mass water and buses.

“It actually took me several months before I could be comfortable in a bus,” he says.