and Henry Mukasa
THE Uganda cargo ship, MV Kabalega, sank in Lake Victoria yesterday after colliding with MV Kaawa near Kuye Island, 51 nautical miles from Port Bell and 15 from Bukasa Islands, triggering a massive rescue and salvage operation.
All the 25 crewmen were rescued and returned safely to Port Bell in Kampala.
Commissioned in 1983 after the signing of the construction agreement in 1978, Kabalega went down at about 11:28am.
For about eight hours after the accident, the ship stayed afloat, but slowly submerged as its crew was evacuated to Kaawa, before it was swallowed up by Africaâ€™s largest fresh water lake.
Transport minister John Nasasira yesterday described the 3:30am mishap, which reduced the countryâ€™s lake fleet to two, as â€œa big loss.â€
Police Marines commandant Joseph Katuramu said word of the accident came in at about 8:00am.
A joint rescue operation brought together the Air force, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Police marines, Lake Rescue Institute and the Uganda Railways Corporation (URC).
A helicopter from the UPDF air force was deployed as several other speedboats with divers were dispatched to the scene of the accident to rescue survivors and assess the situation.
â€œThe boats have been dispatched to pump out water from Kaawa as they escort it back to port Bell,â€ Nasasira said.
The rescue team was also tasked to oversee the safe return of the limping Kaawa to the Port Bell pier.
Some URC authorities, citing lack of equipment, said it would be impossible to fish Kabalega out of the 84 meter-deep lake.
At about 3:00pm, MV Pamba docked at Port Bell and 25 crew members of the ill-fated Kabalega disembarked, drawing cheers from anxious relatives who had camped at the pier.
Another 40 people, among them soldiers, came ashore on the damaged Kaawa.
Huddled in groups in the early hours of the day, the relatives, many of whom talked in hushed tones, besieged the URC authorities to know the plight of their relatives. Many more made frantic calls on their mobile phones.
URC operated three cargo ferries Pamba, Kabalega and Kaawa to Bukoba and Mwanza in Tanzania and to Kisumu in Kenya.
Kabalega, just like Kaawa and Pamba, was built in Belgium and assembled in Uganda, Nasasira said.
Loaded with about 22 wagons of wheat, the 880 tonne Kabalega, named after the fierce Bunyoro ruler, left the northern Tanzanian town of Mwanza on Saturday for Port Bell.
On the same day, Kaawa and Pamba, all loaded with empty wagons, left Port Bell for Mwanza, Nasasira said.
This is the second accident involving Kabalega following the 1995 collision with Pamba.
â€œWe donâ€™t know what could have happened or what the probable cause could have been. But I am constituting a probe team to look into that and many other issues,â€ Nasasira said.
In May 1996, a Tanzanian ferry, MV Bukoba, sank in the Tanzanian part of the lake, killing about 800 people.
Disaster: Cargo ship sinks after collision