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Mtongwe ferry: A rescuer’s near-death experience

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Kepher Otieno | May 30th 2021
Divers searching for bodies after Mtongwe ferry disaster April 1994 [Courtsy]

April 29, 1994 was a dark day for the country. On this morning, 272 people died when MV Mtongwe ferry sank 40 metres from land. So near yet so far. There were 400 people on board.

People cried in shock and disbelief as time dragged by, dashing hopes of more survivors being found. All the while, a team of divers was hard at work. The divers stayed put even when the rescue mission slowly turned into a recovery mission.

One of the people diving into the deep sea that day, 27 years ago, was Mike Osinde, a Kenya Navy officer., then a captain. When we catch up with him, the Mtongwe ferry tragedy is still fresh in his mind.

Now 59, retired Lt Colonel Osinde vividly remembers the rescue mission.

“It was early morning and we were reporting on duty when we saw a multitude near MV Mtongwe jetty,” says Osinde.

This was about 200 metres from Kenya Navy headquarters where Osinde’s office, the Clearance Diving Unit, was.

Upon learning about the ferry accident, he and the other divers quickly changed into their diving gear and dashed to the scene. After a quick briefing to the other divers, they got down to work.

Civilian divers joined in the rescue and recovery operations, which went on the whole day.

It was a risky venture. All the divers had to stay focused to avoid drowning in their efforts to save other people.

Retired Colonel Mike Osinde recalls how he cheated death at the height of 1994 MV Mtongwe ferry tragedy rescue mission at the bottom of the sea bed. [Courtesy]

As time went by, the rescue mission turned into a recovery mission since most of the people had stayed for hours in the water and were presumed dead. A plan to re-float the ferry was executed.

This was when Osinde’s brush with death came about. Osinde says he ran out of oxygen at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, while trying to find a fine spot to tie the lifting strap on the sunken ferry.

“I got stuck for several minutes and could not pull myself out; I was pulling the heavy lifting strap all the way from the top about 30 metres to the bottom of the sea. The strap made my entanglement worse and I was running out of air. I had to think fast and get out otherwise I was going to die trying to recover already dead passengers,” he says.

Osinde was stuck at the sea bed with only five minutes of air left in his oxygen reserve tank.

“I realised that the end was nigh. I was on a countdown clock and it was counting very fast, my life was between a rock and a hard place.”

It took quite a struggle for Osinde to disentangle himself. He says how he was able to come out of it unscathed baffled medics and his fellow divers. He abandoned the strap and pulled himself into the engine room where says he found a number of bodies. 

The entire rescue mission took two weeks. Osinde was awarded the Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW) by the then President, Daniel arap Moi.

The experience gives Osinde the chills to date. 

During investigations into the Mtongwe disaster, issues of overloading and condition of the ferries came up.

About 400 people were on board the ferry when it sunk. More than half of the commuters lost their lives in the incident. 

The number of victims was so high that bodies were placed in the open for identification. 

Kenya Navy divers searching for bodies after Mtongwe ferry disaster [Courtesy]

Other rescues

That is not the only rescue mission Osinde has participated in. In 1996, he led his team of divers to Mwanza, Tanzania, for yet another rescue mission of MV Bukoba.

The Tanzanian vessel had capsized near Mwanza on her voyage from Bukoba to Mwanza. On board were 1,000 passengers.

Osinde took the lead role of the rescue mission that included South African Navy divers

The mission took one month. In recognition of his efforts, Osinde was given an award and certificate by the Chief of Tanzania People’s Defence Force in the presence of then President Benjamin Mkapa.

Then came the Kenya Airways flight KQ 431 crash into the sea off the Ivory Coast in 2000.  

During the rescue mission that lasted more than a month, Osinde lost one of his best divers in an effort to salvage the aircraft and retrieve bodies.

“The Atlantic Ocean is a dangerous ocean to dive into. The bottom profile is so rugged that you could be diving at 30 metres, then you drop to 100 metres,” he says.

In October 2012 when a heavy truck loaded with oil products plunged into the ocean, Osinde was at it again.

He also took part in a recovery mission in 2013 when 11 people died after a loaded tanker crashed into passengers at the Likoni ferry.

He retired from the navy in 2006 and joined the Kenya Revenue Authority as Assistant Commissioner in charge of Customs Marine Unit in 2007.

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