Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ministers Saitoti, Ojode killed in chopper crash

Saitoti, Ojode die in Ngong chopper crash
By PATRICK MAYOYO pmayoyo@ke.nationmedia.com and LUCAS BARASA lbarassa@ke.nationmedia.com

Kenya has been plunged into mourning after Internal Security minister George Saitoti and his assistant Joshua Orwa Ojodeh were killed in a helicopter crash in Ngong Forest.

The accident occurred on Sunday minutes after they had taken off from Wilson Airport in a new police helicopter, heading for a fundraiser in Mr Ojodeh’s Ndiwa constituency.

The cause of the crash was yet to be established with eyewitnesses accounts gave graphic details of the last moments of the tragic flight that also killed two pilots—Nancy Gituanja and Luke Oyugi and bodyguards, Thomas Murimi and Joshua Tongei.

There were reports that one of the bodyguards made a distress call before the crash.

A security official told the Nation that the bodyguard called a colleague who had dropped them at the Wilson Airport saying the plane had developed mechanical problems and they were returning.

But the Commandant of Kenya Police Air-wing, Mr Rogers Mbithi, said the pilots did not alert the control tower that they were experiencing any problems.

However, he said the single-engine helicopter could have developed mechanical problems given the eyewitness accounts of the last moments to the tragedy at Kibiko A in Ngong Forest.

Eyewitnesses described a horror scene of a ball of smoke and fire falling down from the skies. (SEE IN PICTURES: Ngong helicopter crash)

“I watched the helicopter, it looked like it was burning while up in the air, a few minutes later we heard a loud bang and we rushed to the scene to find the wreckage and the bodies,” said Mr Elijah Mucheru, who was among the first people at the scene.

Mr Julius Mochai, another witness, said they tried in vain to put out the fire. “The problem started while it was up in the air, I could see smoke from it even before it crashed.

“After the crash, we tried to put out the fire using soil but after every few minutes an explosion would occur and people would run away for safety, making it difficult to put it out,” said Mr Mochai.

The explosions are suspected to have been from a bodyguard’s pistol recovered at the scene. Prof Saitoti and Mr Ojodeh were flying to Nyarongi Catholic Church in Ndhiwa District in South Nyanza for a harambee (fundraising).

The money they were to contribute at the fundraiser was among personal effects that lay close to their bodies.

The accident scene was littered with burnt and mangled parts of the police helicopter while the bodies lay scattered within the crash site and the thicket. Soot from the smoke covered the nearby trees.

Police had a hard time controlling wananchi (citizens) from the scene until rescue team removed the bodies wrapped in grey bags.

A sombre mood engulfed Ngong town as Prof Saitoti’s Kajiado North MP constituents discussed the accident, while bodaboda cyclists ferried curious people to the site in droves.

Ngong area has been prone to incidents of national magnitude with former Agriculture minister Bruce Mackenzie having died in a plane accident in Ngong hills in 1970s while fiery legislator JM Kariuki was also found killed and dumped in the area in 1975.

The accident occurred exactly four years after former Public Works minister Kipkalya Kones and Bomet MP Lorna Laboso died in a plane crash. Pathologists are expected to conduct DNA tests to identify the victims.

President Kibaki declared three days of national mourning starting Monday. A statement from State House said the national flag will fly at half-mast.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka were among senior government officials who visited the crash scene and condoled with the bereaved families.

“We are yet to establish the cause of the accident, but investigations have been launched and the public will be informed about the findings,” Mr Odinga said.

Mr Musyoka described the death of Prof Saitoti and Mr Ojodeh as unbelievable and very painful.

“I have worked closely with Prof Saitoti for more than 20 years and I know he was trustworthy, dependable and fiercely patriotic. A man who could not hesitate to put the interests of the country ahead of his own,” said the Vice President.

Defence assistant minister Joseph Nkaissery and Narok South MP Nkoidila ole Lankas shed tears after seeing the wreckage and the bodies being transferred to mortuary.

Mr Nkaissery, who is also the Kajiado Central MP, said he had lost a great friend and colleague.

Last evening, Eurocopter Southern Africa — the manufacturers of the ill-fated helicopter said they were shocked by the tragedy and had dispatched a team of experts to assist the Kenyan authorities in investigation into the accident.

“On behalf of all of us at Eurocopter, we extend our sympathy and sincere condolences to the loved ones, and colleagues of the passengers and crew and to all Kenyans on their tragic loss,” said the chief executive Mr Fabrice Cagnat in a statement.

Mr Cagnat said the chopper was built in 2011 and delivered to the Kenya Police last December. It had logged about 230 flight hours and was last serviced at the end of May 2012.

Meanwhile, police had a hard time controlling the crowd after people living neat the forest jammed the crash scene. One of them, Mr Leonard Njoroge, said he feared the helicopter would crash into his house.

“I was with my family at home. We saw the plane swaying and even thought it could hit our house. It proceeded for about one and half kilometres before crashing,” Mr Njoroge said.

He said it burst into flames on impact. “We tried to extinguish the fire but the bodies were already badly burnt. Other people came and I went back to bring my camera,” Mr Njoroge said.

Others said they saw a ball of smoke and fire falling down from the skies and scampered for safety. “The chopper was filled with smoke before it crashed. I heard two explosions as it went up in flames,” said Rose Kwamboka.

Mr Muchiri Nyaga said their was low visibility and the area was covered by a blanket of fog. “The plane produced a funny sound then it stopped suddenly and tumbled down. There was heavy fog. People started screaming for help when we got there those on board were already dead,” he said.

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