At the crack of dawn on May 21, 1996, the MV Bukoba, a combined passenger and cargo vessel, capsized 30 nautical miles short of Mwanza, its destination. After 10 hours, the partially submerged vessel went down with 894 souls, in a botched rescue operation. Twenty-six years later, on November 6, Jackson Majaliwa, a young artisanal fisherman, became a global hero when he beat professional responders to the crash site of Precision Air flight PW494, opening the hatch, enabling the escape of 24 survivors, out of the 43 people on board.
There could have been more survivors, including the two pilots who did not make their way out of the wreckage alive, had the rescue efforts been better co-ordinated. The story of Majaliwa’s heroic efforts to save lives speaks to an absentee, invisible or incompetent state. It also means no lessons have been learnt from tragedies such MV Bukoba, or they were simply ignored.
State of readiness
More fundamental questions, however, should be about the state of readiness of Maritime Search and Rescue and inter-agency co-operation. Lake Victoria is listed as the most dangerous waterbody in the world, recording an average 5,000 deaths from drowning annually. That suggests that even if Bukoba Airport lacked the capability to rescue survivors from a stricken aircraft, just 150 metres off the shore, more specialised agencies should have been on hand to fill the gap.
The absence of a more robust response is all the more puzzling because, on paper, a $495 million regional maritime project, including components for communication, co-ordination and search and rescue, is complete and operational. So where was all this capacity on the critical morning of November 6? Clues are to be found in the statements by Tanzanian government officials on the need to build capacities. In short, most of the projects that have been announced in the past are either non-existent or were poorly executed.
Majaliwa’s narrative of his activities in those critical moments is all the more disturbing because he dived into the waters twice and established that the two pilots, trapped in the cockpit, were alive. Using sign language, they asked him to find an axe with which to shatter the cockpit windows so they could escape. The official responders who, by that time, had arrived advised against such action. Such procrastination mirrored many aspects of the MV Bukoba disaster which, like PW494, ended in avoidable loss of life.
The causes of the tragic outcome in the Precision Air disaster could as well be similar to the earlier disaster. Writing about possible causes of the unfavourable outcome for people who had survived the initial sinking of the MV Bukoba, Captain Joseph Muguthi, formerly of the Kenya Navy, blamed the entire chain of events on ineptitude, disregard for basic marine regulations and the staffing of the marine department with “civil servants and politicians who have no understanding of ships and marine decisions,” and lack of equipment.
How much investment has been made in search and rescue capabilities around Lake Victoria since then, and why was it not available to the survivors of the PW494 crash?