By JONATHAN MUKUKA –
AS news of the Malaysian aeroplane that went missing on March 8, with more than more 200 people on board was making headlines, just before 17:00 hours on March 28, another disturbing news back home was received.
The Samfya pontoon on the Chambeshi River in Shiwangándu District of Muchinga Province had sunk together with an Isuzu truck registration number ABR 3479 and two people were feared dead.
To be précise, the pontoon accident occurred about 70 kilometres from Kasama which is the provincial headquarters of the Northern Province.
A swift rescue team comprising of police officers and Fire Brigade set out from Kasama Municipal Council and arrived at the scene just about 18:00 hours.
“A combined team of police officers and the Fire Brigade from Kasama arrived at the scene few minutes after 18:00 hours.
This time around it was quiet evident that the two missing passengers who were on aboard the pontoon had died because the vessel itself was completely submerged in water while only the top part of the truck was visible with the rest of it submerged in the deep waters of the ChambeshiRiver,” Mr Lameck Simwanza narrated
one of the survivours was driver of the Isuzu truck.
Mr Simwanza said the two missing people had jumped from the pontoon into the river after seeing that a rope which made the vessel to balance and float onto the water, had come out of the hook forcing it together with the truck to sink into the water like the famous story of a sinking titanic.
He explained that he survived the tragedy because he was instructed by the pontoon crew to hold onto the rails of the truck as the pontoon crew members would return later with canoes to rescue all of the people on board.
“But my other colleagues they decided to jump into the water in an attempt to swim to the other side of the river,” he said.
Mr Simwanza said due to the poor visibility, the rescue team abandoned the search for the missing duo until the following day when the team resumed the mission.
Activities for the following day were already on paper to retrieve the bodies including the two vehicles that had gone under.
On March 29, Muchinga Deputy Permanent Secretary Davy Chanda led a team from the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) and the Zambia Police Service including relatives of the missing passengers with the combined efforts of their counterparts from Northern Province
The team from Northern Province was under the charge of Lieutenant Colonel Mutale Chilangwa, the deputy regional commander for the Zambia Army
Other members in the search party from Northern Province included the Zambia National Service ( ZNS), Zambia Police, Rural Roads Unit (RRU) , and the Fire Brigade.
This author covered the search party to the accident scene.
It was a serious mission which was characterised by high emotions especially that it was now clear that none of the two missing people would be found alive considering how deep the river is and the preliminary information gotten from the relatives that no one of them knew how to swim.
“It is not the first time that people have drowned at the same spot. So many people have died on this river in the past.
“What we do is that after we fail to rescue them when they drown and when search party goes deep into the water, we count two to three minutes and if they are not seen on the surface again, then we know that they are dead and since we do not have divers here, we just wait for one or two days for the bodies to float and this is when we go on the water again to retrieve them,” he explained.
Mulenga Mutale, a resident of Chambeshi was also one of the local rescue team members
With this brief from Mr Mutale, all the efforts were shifted towards retrieving the two vessels as people waited for the bodies of the two missing passengers of the pontoon.
However, the bodies were found floating on the river after further attempts to search from them were made.
The first body, was that of Caphus Simwanza which was found floating about five kilometres from the accident scene on the third day of the operation around 10:00 hours.
This was after the two dug-out canoes approached the banks of the Chambeshi River on the other side of Kasama.
After examinations by a joint security team on the Kasama side, it was decided that the body be taken to the other side to Shiwangándu District where it was immediately put on a vehicle from the Muchinga
Provincial administration and dispatched to Chinsali enroute to Nakonde for burial.
The search for the second body resumed immediately after the other one was retrieved that was after the other one had already been dispatched to Nakonde by 17:30 hours, the search was abandoned due to poor visibility as the night was approaching
At this point Mr Chanda and DMMU Regional coordinator Olivie Daris, had rushed to Nakonde where rain was reported to have damaged portions of the Great North Road, at Ilendela and Green Farms, about 14 and five kilometres respectively from Nakonde border, paralysing the flow of traffic from Nakonde
Northern Province Permanent Secretary Hlobotha Nkunika advised that a professional diver from Mpulungu and one or two speed boats be dispatched to boost the search operation which had now been heightened
On the fifth day, the morale in both camps was very high and everyone was optimistic that they would not go beyond 12:00 hours before the second body could be found.
A second speed boat from Fisheries Department in Kasama arrived at the accident scene by 06:00 and a diver was expected to arrive by 09:00 hours the same morning.
By 07:00 hours, a well prepared combined team clad in life jackets with tarpaulin plastics and a blanket, set out on the water to look for the missing body.
After 10:00 hours, there was anxiety from the waiting two teams on the banks of the river who were now becoming impatient with the continued silence from the search team.
By 10:00 hours, a relative who had accompanied the search team called on the mobile phone to break the silence and informed the rest of the team on the banks of the dreadful Chambeshi River that the body was finally located and the search team was now heading towards the location where it was spotted and promised that they will be back to bring the body in the next 30 minutes.
Exactly after 30 minutes, the search team on board a fisheries speed boat arrived with a partially mutilated body which was quickly put into a coffin and was dispatched to Nakonde for burial
Family spokesperson Bin Sichone commended the Government for working tirelessly in finding the remains of their relatives
Mr Sichone also paid tribute to the Government for providing food, coffins and other logistics since the time the accident occurred.
And the driver who survived the accident said he could not believe that he had survived the Samfya pontoon accident
Mr Simwanza said the Isuzu truck which was loaded with hardwood and Mukwa timber sunk together with the pontoon as they attempted to cross the river and had carried groceries.
He said after loadi