The operation to search and rescue passengers of a helicopter that crashed into Lake Nakuru on Saturday has been suspended.
Mr Pius Masai, National Disaster Management Unit’s deputy director, said the operation will continue on Sunday morning as he called on the victims’ family members to be patient.
“Due to darkness and safety for all, the operation has been suspended temporarily, it will resume tomorrow by 0630 hours.
“We appeal to the affected families and members of the public to remain calm,” he said in a press statement.
The mission had delayed for more than eight hours, putting the country’s disaster response into serious question.
Aboard the 5Y-NMJ were five passengers, among them three members of Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika’s communication team.
The traumatised legislator had confirmed.
As at 6:30pm, the fate of occupants remained unclear after the search was called off.
The chopper attached to the Jubilee Party campaign team had left Jarika County Lodge in Nakuru Town shortly after 6:00am and had flown barely 30 minutes before it went down in the middle of the lake.
It is owned by Flex Air Charters run by Captain Bootsy Mutiso.
Mr Sam Gitau, Mr John Mapozi, Mr Anthony Kipyegon, a woman identified as Veronicah and the pilot Apollo Malowa are still missing.
It has since emerged that the pilot and the crew may have been on an early morning adventure around the lake contrary to earlier reports that the crew was being ferried to a political rally in Narok.
Fortunately, it was a lucky day for five journalists who would have boarded the same helicopter later that morning to Oletipis, where President Uhuru Kenyatta was scheduled to address a rally before flying to Kajiado for another one.
They included Citizen TV reporters Jacque Maribe and cameraman Paul Chirchir who had spent the night at Jarika County Lodge.
Others were Jane Goin, Kiama Kariuki and John Nyagah of Media Max.
They said they have been using the helicopter to attend Jubilee rallies since May this year.
The journalists were shocked to learn about the crash as they prepared to be flown to the venue.
Ms Maribe broke down while giving a live report from Lake Nakuru where she had gone after learning about the incident.
Ms Maribe said the pilot was to refuel the chopper after dropping the first team before coming back to pick the rest of the group.
Witnesses said they noticed the plane flying very low over the waters before it crashed.
The search and rescue operation, which the NDMU said was being conducted by multiagency disaster management stakeholders, put both the national and county governments on the spot over their poor preparedness.
Nakuru residents, including families of the victims, had started thronging Lake Nakuru National Park immediately the incident was reported in the media and waited helplessly for hours on the shores of the lake.
Governor Lee Kinyanjui and County Commissioner Joshua Nkanatha were among those who first arrived at the park, and urged for calm.
Although they had arrived early, crew from the Kenya Red Cross could not do much as they waited for the rescue team, boats and apparatus from Naivasha, which is about 70 kilometres away and just about an hour’s drive to the scene.
The National Disaster Management Unit released its first statement at 10:22am, saying it had activated a National Police Service Chopper to support the Nakuru County Disaster Team on a search and rescue operation.
A police chopper arrived at 11am and flew around the lake severally trying to locate the signal of the chopper.
It was not until 1pm when the first rescue team comprising divers and wardens from the Kenya Wildlife Services arrived from Naivasha.
Its mission was to locate the aircraft before a retrieval operation could commence.
In their second update at 12:11pm, NDMU said it had activated the Kenya Defence Forces Disaster Response Unit (KDF-DRU) through the National Operation Centre to bring in divers from the Kenya Navy.
The Navy team arrived at around 4pm and proceeded into the lake.
Leaders and members of the public complained about the slow response.
“It is very sad that we have witnessed this delay in rescue efforts. We will push for training of divers as we have three lakes in the county,” Nakuru Woman Representative Liz Chelule said.
Leisure activities such as boat riding, swimming and fishing do not take place in the lake, hence the reason why there are no rescue boats, a source at Lake Nakuru National Park said.
But Lake Naivasha has rescue boats.
Mr Charles Chirchir, an eye witness, said the chopper was producing strange sounds minutes before it went down.
“There is a possibility that it might have been faulty because of the sounds it was producing,” he observed.
Another eye witness, Ms Caroline Maina, said: “I saw the chopper before it crashed. I thought it was touring the lake but upon enquiring I learnt it had crashed.”
Members of the public were, later in the afternoon, barred from accessing the site when the rescue operation commenced.
The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) in a statement denied social media reports that the chopper belonged to President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Director General Captain Gilbert Kibe also said the ill-fated chopper belonged to Flex Air Charters.
He said investigations are ongoing to establish the cause of the incident.
“We cannot give further details at this time,” Captain Kibe said.
Additional Reporting by Magdalene Wanja and Linet Amuli.
Senator confirms members of her media team were on board.