A search and rescue operation in an early morning helicopter crash in Lake Nakuru delayed for more than eight hours on Saturday raising serious questions about the country’s disaster preparedness.
Aboard 5Y-NMJ owned and operated by Flex Air Charters run by Captain Bootsy Mutiso were five passengers, among them three members of Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika’s Communication team.
As at 6.30pm, the occupants of the ill-fated plane were believed to have died after the search was called off.
With the disaster response having terribly failed, hopes of rescuing the victims were dimmed.
“Due to darkness and safety for all, the operations have been suspended temporarily, it will resume tomorrow by 0630 hours (6.30am). We appeal to the affected families and members of the public to remain calm,” said Mr Pius Masai of the National Disaster Management Unit (NDMU).
He added that “it is an unfortunate incident and a delicate operation whereby the safety of everyone involved in the operations is paramount”.
The ill-fated helicopter attached to the Jubilee Campaign team had left Jarika Hotel in Nakuru town shortly after 6am and had flown barely 30 minutes before it went down in the middle of the lake.
By the time of going to press, Mr Sam Gitau, Mr John Mapozi, Mr Anthony Kipyegon and a woman only identified as Veronicah and the pilot Mr Apollo Malowa were feared dead with their bodies still trapped inside the submerged helicopter.
There were conflicting reports on whether the pilot may have been on an early morning adventure ride around the lake or was ferrying the crew to a political rally in Oletipis, Narok County, that was to be addressed by President Uhuru Kenyatta. The rally was later cancelled due to poor weather.
However, it was a lucky day for at least six journalists who would have boarded the same plane later that morning to Narok.
Some of the journalists had spent the night at the same hotel and said the pilot had indicated he would leave to refuel before returning to pick them.
The helicopter is said to have been in regular use at Jubilee rallies since May this year when campaigns for the August 8 elections reached their peak.
Witnesses told theNation they noticed the plane flying very close to the water before it crashed.
There was an air of despair and fury as the rescue mission delayed, diminishing hopes of rescuing its passengers as minutes turned into hours.
The search and rescue operation, which according to the NMDU was being conducted by multi-agency disaster management stakeholders put both the national and county governments on the spot on disaster response and preparedness.
Nakuru residents and leaders, including families of the victims had started thronging Lake Nakuru National Park immediately the incident was reported and waited helplessly for hours on the shores of the lake.
The county team led by Governor Lee Kinyanjui and the government’s administration led by County Commissioner Joshua Nkanatha were among those who arrived at the park in the early morning hours.
“I urge the affected families to remain calm as the search operation is still underway,” he stated.
Governor Kinyanjui termed the incident unfortunate. He said there was room for improvement on rescue operations, particularly on coordination.
“We have learnt our lessons and all the emerging concerns will be taken into account immediately. Whatever challenges we have encountered could be used to boost our response strategies in future,” he said.
He, however, urged social media users to be more cautious in future so as not to reveal names of victims of such accidents before their families are informed.
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, 70 kilometres away and just about an hour’s drive.
The National Disaster Management Unit released its first statement at 10:22 am, 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 had arrived at 11 am and was seen making several rounds around the lake trying to locate the signal of the aircraft.
It wasn’t, however, until 1 pm that the first rescue team comprising divers and wardens from the Kenya Wildlife Services, Naivasha Fisheries patrol team arrived from Naivasha.
Its’ mission was to locate the aircraft before a retrieval operation could commence.
In their second update at 12:11 pm, 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 and urged for calm among members of the public.
The Navy rescue team arrived at around 4 pm and proceeded into the lake.
Leaders and members of the public complained about the slow response and faulted the government.
“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,” said the county Woman Representative Ms Liz Chelule.
Lake Nakuru has no human activities such as boat riding, swimming or fishing.
According to a source at Lake Nakuru National Park who is not authorised to speak to the media, that is the reason why there’s no rescue boat like is the case with Lake Naivasha.
An eye witness, Mr Charles Chirchir, said the chopper was producing abnormal sounds minutes before it went down into the lake.
“There is a possibility that it might have been faulty because of the sounds it was producing,” he said.
Another eye witness Ms Caroline Maina said she thought it was a tourism chopper, before it crashed.
“I saw the chopper before it crashed. I thought it was touring the lake but upon inquiring I learnt it had crashed,” she said.
Members of the public were later in the afternoon barred from accessing the site when the rescue operation commenced.
A traumatised Ms Kihika had earlier confirmed reports that some members of her team were on the chopper.
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 said the ill-fated chopper belonged to Flex Air Charters by run by Captain Mutiso, who is also a director at the Kenya Airports Authority.
The captain is known to be close to the First Family and has in the past flown the President during campaigns.
KCCA said investigations were on going through appropriate government agencies to establish the cause of the accident.
“We cannot give further details at this time,” Captain Kibe had stated.
Additional Reporting by Magdalene Wanja and Linet Amuli