As police, army and fishermen rallied on Monday to recover more bodies from the sunken hull of a boat that capsized on Saturday night, killing at least 32 people, two Observer journalists headed to Ggaba landing site to try and retrace the last steps of the dead and survivors.
Accompanied by a photographer, this writer arrived at Ggaba landing site on the southwestern fringes of the capital, Kampala, at about 12:40pm. Lined in the neighbourhood by outsize plush homes of the rich like Gordon Wavamunno and Sudhir Ruparelia, the landing site, on the one side, is home to the rich and on the other, it’s home to the impoverished who live in dingy houses dotted with puddles of sewage-infested water.
This same neighbourhood is also home to the headquarters of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation. Much of Ggaba landing site is covered by a roadside market with plenty of fresh foods and is a stone’s throw away from KK Beach; where the revellers connected to join the ill-fated MV Templar semi-ferry owned by Templar and Sheila Bisase.
Jolted by the accident, on Monday, everyone on the lake wore a life jacket. In fact just 100 meters into the lake, there was a marine patrol boat with two police officers enforcing safety standards.
We started our journey at 12:45pm, our destination being Mutima beach where the boat sunk just 100 meters to the shoreline. The captain of our boat kept showing us different places of significant importance.
“It is here that the boat started developing mechanical faults and the captain wanted to dock,” the captain tells us. The point is just 15 minutes from KK beach. At 13:05pm we arrived at the very point where the boat sunk. The water is not so deep. Swimming halfway from the capsized boat, one can easily walk the rest of the distance to the shoreline.
At Mutima beach now located at Buzindera village, Mpatta sub-county, Mukono district, there’s a heavy presence of UPDF soldiers and police officers on patrol.
The number of local fishermen and residents of neighbouring villages rival that of men and women in uniform. Many are huddled in groups and the only conversation is about the boat accident.
It’s hard to know who is telling the truth because everyone has a version which contradicts another. Some speak like they were on the boat yet they are simply relaying what they heard from a first witness account.
What really happened?
Zurah Ganyana, the police spokesperson for the rescue mission, said the boat had spent three months out of action due to mechanical defects. She said, however, that when Bisase, the owner, got a deal for the party at his K-Palm beach in Mukono, he hurriedly patched it up and set it out to sail.
Just 15 minutes into the ride, the engines started malfunctioning forcing the captain to tell his boss that they needed to dock immediately but his counsel was ignored. Ordinarily there would have been another emergency boat tailing this one, but it had taken some people to K-Palm beach.
Bisase hoped that it wasn’t wise to dock on the way yet the emergence boat was already in transit to rescue them.
“Our Marines at KK beach tried to intercept the boat but they were overpowered. Actually some even jumped on the boat appealing to the people not to continue because the boat was not in good mechanical condition but they were pushed off the boat,” Ganyana said.
“We had already written to the ministry of Works and Transport informing them about the unworthiness of this boat and when they came to inspect, this particular boat was not inspected; the owners had hidden it.”
Besides the boat being in dangerous mechanical condition, the owners had even overloaded it, she said. But how overloaded was it? Some have put the number at 150 people. Police says only 26 people have been rescued and 32 bodies retrieved. This puts the number of passengers at 58, leaving a big discrepancy of almost 100 people.
George Onyango, the first fisherman to see the boat sink, said he is not sure there were 100 people on board. Onyango was also part of the rescue effort.
“It was around 7:15pm while I was chilling near Mutima beach listening to music through my earphones that I heard very loud music that dwarfed mine, which forced me to remove my earphones to listen to music from the approaching boat. A few moments later, I heard people screaming for help. When I reached the boat, I saw many crates of beer,” Onyango said.
His version helps to shine a light on one more puzzle; many of the boat occupants could have been under the influence of alcohol and couldn’t save themselves. Coupled with an increased current on the lake punctuated by darkness, that the death toll climbing to 32 cannot be surprising.
Prince David Wasajja told local media that the number of the dead could have been more if police had not intercepted the boat earlier to insist that passengers wear life jackets. However, Geoffrey Odaga, one of the early responders, said some of the dead actually had life jackets.
“Some had life jackets but they didn’t know how to use them. When you fall in the water, what it normally does is to try and rip the jacket off you. Instead of trying to hold it [jacket] near the neck so that it remains firmly on them, many were too desperate to think straight.”
Odaga says the life jacket is more effective for people who know how to swim. “It will hold you on the water as you swim to safety. But many of those who died had no idea about swimming. A simple current would cover them and they couldn’t contain the water,” Odaga said. Sula Kasujja, a diver from Entebbe, shuddered at how the people died.
“They must have died a painful death looking at the distance from the shoreline. But looking at the boat, I think it had about 80 people,” Kasujja, who dived and had a look at the boat, said.
It is not yet known how many people are still in the water. UPDF, police and the fishermen’s attempt to remove the boat on Monday failed. Commanded by socialite Brian White, who was guarded by about five Special Forces Command personnel in the presence of senior police officers like the director for operations Asuman Mugyenyi; the rescuers tried tying a rope on the wreckage and pull the boat in vain. At first some were reluctant to join in, until Brian White said he would order police to beat them up.
“If you can’t help your fellow Ugandans who are in trouble, then you have no business here, leave before I order police to beat you up,” Brian White thundered authoritatively.
When the youth pulling the wreckage started chanting the People Power slogan, Mr White shouted back. “Eeeeeeeh, muyimbe birala ebyo mubiveeko [Get another thing to sing, not that]”
Umaru Kyobe, a former captain of the ill-fated boat who agrees that indeed the boat was too old and in bad shape to transport people, said the rudimentary rescue methods could do nothing to move a boat as heavy as 1,300 tonnes.
Ganyana said only two families had reported missing persons. “Sylivia Namutebi of Nakisunga and Godfrey Musisi are the only persons we know who are missing. We appeal to all those who survived this disaster to come out and report to police so that we fill in the missing gaps in our investigations.” Ganyana said. Saulo Wamala, a relative to Musisi, said they last heard from him on Saturday.
“His phone is off since Saturday and we know him to be a lifefist; that’s why we believe he might be part of the victims,” Wamala said.
As police tries very hard to deflect the blame for the disaster heaping it at the feet of the ministry of transport, Abbey Kamulegeya, a chef who formerly worked for Bisase, said somebody in government must take responsibility.
“The minister of Transport, Aggrey Bagiire, said they have been looking for the boat but it had been hidden. How could that happen? How did it then end up on the water to massacre our people? Let them stop the blame game. Someone should take responsibility and resign,” Kamulegeya said.