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Why Nithi River bridge evokes images of death

This truck crashed into the Nithi River on May 25, 2021, polluting the river with cement. [Gerald Mutethia, Standard]

The Nithi River Bridge is on Thuci-Nkubu highway connecting Meru to Embu through Tharaka Nithi.

It was built from a British grant and opened by the Duke of Edinburgh (the late Prince Philip) during Queen Elizabeth II's last visit to Kenya in 1983

The death toll from crashes at the killer bridge in Tharaka Nithi County is in the hundreds and most have been in three different bus crashes over three decades.

Yet, as you exit Marima and Mitheru markets on the opposite ridges of Nithi, prominent road signs warn you of the blackspot below.

Two white containers branded St John's Ambulance which were installed to act as temporary accident first aid centres are on the road reserve just beyond the warning signs.

It is a picturesque descent and then ascent across a valley in a former coffee growing zone which sends chills down those who know the story of the valley of death.

The queen herself would have opened the highway during her last visit to Kenya in 1983 but instead sent her husband Prince Philip who cut a ribbon at a monument near Thuci River just after Kathangeri market the last stop in Embu heading to Meru.

The first accident that put Nithi bridge on the list of infamy was in 1995 when a matatu plunged into the river 40 feet down the bridge killing 16 people, including 12 members of one family.

Removing bodies from a  Twafiq bus that plunged into Nithi River killing 37 passengers on August 24, 2008.

In 1998, another accident would halt Stagecoach bus services in the area when their bus carrying more than 100 passengers plunged into the river killing 56 on the spot. The following year another bus collided with a matatu killing another 16 passengers.

In August 2000 another 45 people were killed when a Tawfiq Bus headed to Mombasa plunged into the river. Another 27 passengers were rushed to Chogoria Mission Hospital. With a capacity of 65, that bus had been carrying more than 80 passengers at the time of the accident.

It was after this accident that the government reconstructed the descent from Marima which has a climbing lane.

The redesign involved the construction of a central embankment separating vehicles climbing down from Meru to Nairobi and those on the climb up towards Meru.

The effect is that vehicles on the descent from Marima don’t overtake until they get to the bridge. This is what has reduced accidents - at least the intensity but the regularity is still alarming.

The scene at Nithi bridge in Tharaka Nithi where a Modern Coast bus from Maua in Meru en route Mombasa plunged into river Nithi on Sunday evening killing 33 people. At least 10 survivors were evacuated to Chuka Referral and Chogoria Mission hospitals. [Phares Mutembei/Standard]

According to data from Kenya Red Cross, 43 people lost their lives at the black spot between June 2020 and May 2021 with 71 other casualties only that it was in minor accidents.

Former Mt Kenya Red Cross and CEO Careplus Gitonga Mugambi said in May 2021 that many accidents at the bridge were due to carelessness by drivers and speeding.

“Accidents at Nithi have reduced compared to ten years ago. Then we had buses killing even 30 people on the spot.”

With its S-bends, rises and descents, this road was an engineering marvel and one of the first roads in Kenya to have spacious climbing lanes. It has taken so many lives that local leaders have always called for the redesign of the Nithi Bridge.

Some engineers have suggested the complete removal of the bridge and the construction of massive box culverts to reduce the gradient of the road across the river.