I quit my seaman job to save lives
By Joackim Bwana
| July 6th 2016
In April 29, 1992, I witnessed a horrifying accident at the Likoni Ferry Channel that influenced me to quit my job as a seaman and start a diving rescue team.
On that day, 272 — out of the 400 people — aboard the MV Mtongwe Ferry perished after it capsized just 40 metres from the Port. Most of the victims drowned due to lack of coast guards, skilled divers, life rings and life jackets.
Having been in the seamanship industry for over 20 years working as an experienced diver, I decided to form the Kenya Rescue Divers team to help rescue people and retrieve drowned bodies across the coastal waters.
With the money I had saved, I acquired my own diving gear including an inflatable boat that I assemble using fiber and an engine, which we use for patrol and rescue missions. I also bought a motorcyle to help me maneuver through traffic easily and get to the accident scene fast.
In 2010, I left a new job I’d gotten in Egypt, working as a seaman, after the Government called me back home to award me for my outstanding work.
I was expecting to be given a job but was only issued with a certificate and a trophy yet I have four kids to feed and educate. This has, however, not stopped me from continuing with the rescue mission.
My most recent dive was when I was called upon to retrieve the bodies of occupants of a Toyota Probox that plunged into the waters at Likoni Ferry crossing last month.
I was forced to dive 60 meters deep into the cold rough waters of the Indian Ocean, during the late evening hours, in order to recover the bodies. We recovered the driver’s body but the rescue mission was called off once darkness set in because we did not have deep sea lighting equipment.
I know this man’s life would have been saved if divers were at the scene when his vehicle plunged because it takes 15 minutes for a person to suffocate in water. The Kenya Navy team only threw him a life ring saver from their boat but he could not save himself.
One life ring can hold up to four people if they know how to utilise it but the late was scared and he was waving hands for help instead of grabbing the ring.
Over the years I have offered diving lessons to young divers including Kenya Navy officers. I have also ensured all my four children, including my eight-year-old daughter, can dive and are able to rescue their peers in case of an accident.
I recall in 2010 the media highlighted how I rescued a truck driver at Kibarani Bridge without any diving gear after he plunged 40 metres deep into the ocean.
After pulling him out of the water, I proceeded to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on him for 30 minutes until he gained his breath and was taken to hospital.
All these effort have earned me recognition globally as a qualified international diver and I have received three international medals in Europe and Saudi Arabia.
In 2009, I was awarded an Indian Ocean International bronze medal then received a Silver Star Kenya medal in 2010 and an International Maritime World medal in 2013.
Despite this being a risky job, I do not charge any fee to retrieve and rescue people or bodies from the ocean because it is inhuman to charge a family that is bereaved. I, however, accept any amount a family is willing to give us after recovering the body or rescuing a person.
I make some money through pulling out vehicles that have sunk into the ocean, welding ships that have holes and cleaning up the ships, jobs that come once in a blue moon.
My team charges half the value of the vehicle when someone wants to recover their sunken vehicle, which is cheaper compared to using cranes. For a single rescue in the deep waters, it costs between Sh7,000 to Sh10,000 depending on how many people have drowned which is expensive for me to foot from my pocket.
It costs Sh1,000 to fill one gas cylinder, Sh500 for one oxygen gas bottle and in some instances one rescue mission consumes 10 oxygen bottles because we have about five divers and each takes three dives to retrieve a body in the deep waters.
Diving into the ocean is risky and I am always at the mercy of the sea and the Lord because the sharks might attack me or the oxygen gas compressor might fail and could end up paralysing my body.
With over 300,000 commuters crossing the channel each day, I think the Government should endeavour to have more trained divers aboard each ferry to rescue people in the event of an accident or suicide attempt.
Kenya Ferry needs to have Coast Guards located at the ferry with speed boats ready to carry victims who drown.
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