A jolly ride on the evening of November 24 turned into a death-trap on the waters of Lake Victoria. Take a look inside the doomed vessel.
LAKE VICTORIA BOAT TRAGEDY
By Joseph Kizza
As the carcass of the doomed vessel emerged out of the relatively turbid waters of Lake Victoria, the mid-evening sun rays that filtered through did little to lighten the deathly mood that hang over the area - and ubiquitously over the nation at large.
This was last week Thursday.
Only days before, the MV Templar had sunk into the waters of the lake with such ferociousness that it took with it scores of lives in its freakish descent.
A jolly ride on the evening of November 24 had turned into a death-trap when the vessel carrying an unspecified number of revellers capsized not far from Mutima Beach in Mukono district.
The horrifying mishap that occured around 7:30pm on a warm Saturday sparked off a series of events, including a search-and-rescue operation, frantic phone calls and a media frenzy.
It is ten days today since the nightmare and the nation is still reeling from the after-shocks of an incident that claimed the lives of over 30 people and spared no more than 37 people, according to Police.
While the exact number of people onboard the blue-and-white vessel was not known, what soon became clear in the wake of the disaster - and was underlined as the official cause of the accident by Police at the time - was that the boat was overloaded and in poor mechanical shape.
Somehow, the cruise boat did manage to make its way on to the waters, carrying a group of mostly young people eager to enjoy some thrill.
The party-goers did not know that for many of them, it would be their final moments alive.
After the accident, there emerged more questions than answers.
The victims' families and friends as well as the nation at large were left wondering what could have been.
Were there life jackets on the vessel?
Was the boat seaworthy?
One close friend of mine I talked to after the boat incident said that in the lead-up to the much anticipated boat cruise, her friend had called her that they go together. But she (my friend) was broke, and decided to opt out.
Sunday morning, hours after the accident, her friend would be announced among the dead.
"I most likely would have been dead too if I had gone along," she told me.
Ugandans woke up to news of the death of their fellow countrymen and women on Sunday, November 25, as Police and army marines joined forces to work tirelessly to retrieve as many bodies as possible from the waters. Hope of finding more survivors was fading by the minute.
Days later, hauling the killer boat out of the waters required a lot of work. The combined brute force of local volunteers and marines was what was needed to bring the doomed vessel to shore.
Credit to the marines and others that risked their own lives to search for the missing.
On the ill-fated night, several occupants of the doomed boat saw their lives slip away with every inevitable gulp of water during the pandemonium that ensued.
Survivors later told of the mini tugs-of-war for life jackets as the scramble for survival hit its peak under the dark of the night. One said he had to peel off his life jacket after some strugglers fought for it in a rush to survive.
Life jackets had become death traps for those who had them on. The unlucky ones that clang onto theirs were pulled down into the waters - never to return back to the surface alive.
After remaining submerged for days, the MV Templar, whose owner Michael Bisase 'Templar' and wife Sheila also died in the tragedy, would buoy to the surface looking like death mechanised.
The rickety structure that only days back had hosted an effervescent group of people relishing a good time of music, dance and liquor appeared dead and ghostly.
Having remained under water for a couple of days, the operation personnel had to pump water out of the killer boat, which some have termed as the 'Titanic of Uganda' - in reference to the RMS Titanic, a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg.
The team on the MV Templar used a generator and pump to do the job, as the vessel appeared to spew its haunting contents into the lake.
The water inside the boat had collected in its bowels.
This is what remained of one of seats on the boat.
On the day of the boat cruise, revellers posted on social media images and footage of themselves having fun onboard.
Some were capturing their finals moments alive. Drinks were going around generously against of a backdrop of hit after hit from the DJ's box. The crowd was a blend of both the ordinary people and some high-profile individuals.
Prince David Wasajja, the brother of Buganda king Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, was a survivor. Musician Iryn Namubiru also made the survivors list, and would later tell of her personal account of the moments before, during and after the tragedy.
The engine and canopy of the wrecked boat were also retrieved and brought to shore.
Some locals stared blankly at the carcass before them, perhaps overwhelmed with questions. Some of them are regular fishermen at the beach but had never before seen so much death in one area.
An ATM card, clutch bags, shades, a shoe and a phone cable sat in what was left of the DJ's box.
That's one picture that speaks volumes about the trail of loss that the accident left in its wake. Some bodies retrieved from the water were found with a shoe missing, others a wrist watch hanging loosely.
Others, having died struggling for dear breath, were pulled out with their arms clenched out - stiff and cold.
On one end of the boat, some luxury seats, typically reserved for the VIP travellers, barely remained rooted amid the clutter.
The aftermath commotion onboard offers an idea of the degree of panic that undoubtedly rippled across the deck on that night of the cruise.
Footage that has made rounds across various social media platforms shows a boat full of life and sprite. Far from what emerged out of the waters days later.
The operation team worked hard to bring the vessel to the mainland.
The group had to employ rudimentary methods to make this happen - first, they cleared the path and then placed logs as rollers underneath on which the large vessel would be hauled.
Beyond the manual labour that was invested in bringing the vessel to dry land, a closer inspection of the exterior of the boat is very revealing. The zig-zag charred outline at the bottom is evidence that the vessel had had some patch-up.
In fact, the boat had just been serviced before the doomed cruise, which had apparently been delayed due to the condition of the vessel.
This zoomed-in shot lends some degree of clarity to the state of the killer boat.
Was it only a matter of time that it would collapse?
Of course having remained submerged wholly for some time after the disaster, the elements did have an impact. Many parts of the surface were rusted while some metallic bars on the edges had sagged.
But a much closer look on the state of affairs onboard is more telling. The compartment below, which originally was a reserve for VIPs, was filled with water. The cover of this section was worse for wear.
The underside of the rusted lid was patchy and clearly needed a lick of paint.
The edges of the opening appeared chipped and would cramble any time soon.
Inside the nooks and crannies, the clutter created a Gothic collection of steel, metal and rubber.
While many of the components of the boat lay rickety and in disarray, the boat's wheel remained intact.
It emerged that the coxswain, upon realising that disaster was about to strike, jumped off the boat and apparently swam to safety. He had reportedly made some frantic SOS calls to his colleagues back on the mainland when water started to fill inside the vessel.
A peek into the murky, greasy lower chamber.
An evening of fun quickly turned into a real-life nightmare.
Many of those on board were sloshed amid the celebratory mood.
Perhaps it is no wonder that several beer bottles were found still trapped in some parts of the boat.
Paint buckets were also found on the boat.
One of the sticking points in the discussions around the disaster was life jackets.
Were there enough of these personal floatation devices on board?
Were the ones available of the right standard?
On Monday, Police said they had recovered some items.
Here is the full statement posted on Police's Facebook page:
We all recall the boat cruise tragedy of November 24th, 2018 in which 32 lives were lost and a total of 37 survivors registered and 5 are unaccounted for yet. Some properties were recovered and the investigation teams are handling these to establish whether these are part of the survivors or the dead. These include among others: Fuel cards, shopping cards, driving permits, ATM cards and National IDS and mobile phones. Names for some of these items include: Stella Byabashaija Ntanda (Bag shopping cards, driving permit, National ID and Fuel Card), Nantege Yudaya (Bag and National ID), Doreen Arinaitwe (Bag and National ID), Samalie Nakakazi (Bag, Driving Permit and National ID, ULS Card), Stella Nabasa (Bag and Driving permit) and Namayanja Bag and Driving permit). There is also Lindah Nankungu (Bag, Driving permit), Mariam Nakigudde Bag and Bank ATM Card), Irene Alitubeera (Bag and National ID), Zahura Paul Apuuli (National ID), Barbra Kabagambe(Driving pemit) and Martha Kawalya (Bag, Driving permit and National ID).
In total we recovered 27 hand bags, 9 chairs, I generator and I speaker, 7 mobile phones, 12 National IDS, 4 pair of male shoes, 3 pairs of shoes for ladies and an assortment of clothes. Money recovered was UGX. 500,000= and some has already been claimed by the right owners.
Police has since ended the search for other potentially missing people.
But as Uganda tries to pick up the broken pieces, many questions will continue to linger on the minds of many people.
REST IN PEACE ALL OUR DEPARTED COUNTRYMEN AND WOMEN