A school community in Mwingi town is mourning the lives of 10 pupils whose lives were cut short in a grisly road crash on Saturday night.
The pupils from St Gabriel’s Boarding Primary School, a private academy run by the Kitui Catholic Diocese, were returning home from a five-day study tour in Mombasa when their school bus collided with a truck near Mwingi town at around 11pm on Saturday night.
Eight pupils died on the spot, six others were seriously injured, and more than 20 suffered various degrees of injury.
Two more from the seriously injured six, who were referred to Kenyatta National Hospital from Mwingi Level Four Hospital, succumbed to excessive bleeding moments later, the first one on the way to Nairobi and the second while undergoing treatment at KNH.
The accident happened as parents of the 39 pupils in the bus waited to receive their children just two kilometres away.
They all trooped to the accident scene, where they were met with the loud, horrific wails of their children from the bottom of a river at Kanginga.
A marathon rescue operation ensued under the cover of darkness as the parents desperately tried to retrieve the injured from the wreckage before police arrived and rushed them to hospital.
The truck driver attempted to flee from the scene towards Nairobi but was arrested 15 kilometres away. He will be arraigned today.
The pupils had travelled for about 600 kilometres from the coastal town where they had toured, some for the first time, the historical Fort Jesus, Kenyatta Public Beach, and Moi International Airport, among others.
Those who died were among the best performers in Standard Eight, the academic stars of a school that prides itself in a long tradition of academic excellence in Mwingi, Kitui and beyond.
Catholic Diocesan Education Secretary Fr Julius Muthamba said the accident was a big disaster to not only the school, but also the entire Kitui County.
Kitui Central OCPD Muthuri Mwongera said the bus driver appeared to have lost control after colliding with the truck on a narrow bridge before plunging into the river.
“Preliminary investigations show the bus was hit on the right hand side and the pupils that died were seated on that side. It veered off the road and landed on the river bed,” Mr Mwongera said.
On board were also three teachers and the school matron.
The driver, Mr Vundi Ngathu, said the pupils were in high spirits and were singing hymns as they prepared to meet with their parents after a five-day tour.
He suffered a gash on his forehead. The vehicle, part of a two-bus convoy hired by the school for the tour, had been on the road since 7am on Saturday, save for several stopovers on the way.
The school’s board chairman, Nairobi lawyer Christopher Nzili, who travelled with the pupils, said all had been well since they left Mombasa.
“We had hoped to get home early but the busy Mombasa-Nairobi highway delayed us,” he explained.
“The pupils who died were among our best. They had been eager to learn and shared with their friends back home.”
Former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu and MPs Charles Nguna (Mwingi West) and Gideon Mulyungi (Mwingi Central) were among leaders who rushed to condole with the bereaved families.
Mr Musyoka said it was “extremely saddening that such young learners met their untimely end in a road tragedy just when their lives were starting to bloom — and when they had so much hope, expectation and promise”.
He asked school administrators “to avoid putting the lives of our young ones at risk through night travel” as the tragedy could probably have been avoided “had proper plans been put in place to ensure that the learners were only allowed to travel during day time”.
According to the Traffic (Amendment) Act of 2017, motor vehicles transporting children to or from school, or on any non-school related activity, must be fitted with safety belts designed to be used by children; be painted yellow, and have other signage as may be prescribed.
They must also comply with the conditions imposed on Passenger Service Vehicles and should not operate between 10pm and 5am.
Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, speaking in Nairobi, said she would comment on the issue of night travel today after getting a detailed briefing of the accident, while President Uhuru Kenyatta condoled with the bereaved and wished the injured quick recovery.
“It is indeed sad and unfortunate that we lost those we look forward to to secure the future of our great nation,” President Kenyatta said.
Cases of learners being killed or injured through road crashes have been on the increase in recent times.
Last month, 14 pupils and a teacher from Mpopong Boarding Primary School in Narok County escaped death narrowly after their bus was involved in an accident on the Bomet-Sotik road.
The pupils were travelling to Kericho for a tour of tea factories.
In the same month, eight pupils from Kichare Primary School in Gwasi were seriously injured when their bus veered off the road and landed in a ditch near Ahero.