Mystery surrounding the pilot of a helicopter that crashed in Lake Turkana early this month has deepened after the family refused to bury the burnt remains it was given.
Mario Magonga, popularly known as Captain Mario, died alongside four Americans when his helicopter came down in Central Island on the evening of March 3.
Whereas the bodies of the four Americans have been identified, Capt Mario’s family members say the remains they were given cannot be identified as a body.
Capt Magonga was working for KIDL Helicopters based at Wilson Airport, Nairobi.
A frequent flier of Deputy President William Ruto, Magonga was one of the most experienced helicopter pilots in the country.
His colleagues, friends and family say he hardly flew at night when conditions are treacherous for helicopters.
The US embassy in Nairobi issued a statement after the crash, identifying the Americans as Anders Asher Jesiah Burke, Brandon Howe Stapper, David Mark Baker, and Kyle John Forti.
Magonga’s family has petitioned the embassy to help in investigating what brought down the copter and resolve the mystery of the captain’s body.
“The bodies of the four American tourists were positively identified but it was very difficult to tell the remains of the fifth person as that of Capt Mario. The remains were charred beyond recognition,” Capt Magonga’s uncle Ibrahim wrote to the new United States ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter on March 8.
By the time of going to press, the embassy had not responded to our inquiries about what action it has taken on the family’s request for help.
Capt Magonga’s sister Gladys said a sample of the bones collected from the crash site has been flown abroad for analysis after Kenyan government pathologist Johansen Oduor failed to identify the DNA of the pilot.
"There was no body. The rescue team found some bones, whose DNA the pathologist could not ascertain," Ms Magonga told the Sunday Nation.
"Basically, we are trying to confirm if the remains belong to him.”
She said a sample of the charred remains was taken to the US for DNA analysis, adding that the family reads foul play in her brother's death.
The brand new chopper, estimated to be valued at more than Sh400 million, came down at 8.35pm.
“Investigations are on though the family has expressed doubts if that was the captain's body. They want answers as to why only their kin was burnt beyond recognition in the accident,” the letter to Mr McCarter said.
For a man who had a sense of good life, Capt Magonga’s requiem mass at Don Bosco Catholic Church in Upper Hill, Nairobi on Friday was an anti-climax of sorts.
The mass was akin to a wedding without a bride — his casket was missing. There was no indication of a burial date.
Family, colleagues and friends spoke highly of the captain.
Media entrepreneur “Sir” Henry Otiende, a high school mate, described the captain as a top rugby winger.
“He was the most thrilling fly half who could side step with both feet,” Mr Otiende said.
“He was not very popular with opposing teams as he could embarrass them.”
Mr Otiende added that Magonga was “a good rapper who could have easily made a career in entertainment”.
A captain who only identified himself as Kieran and who spoke on behalf of the pilots said Magonga inspired him to fly aeroplanes.
“He was so passionate about his job and about flying that it resonated with me. This shaped my flying career,” he said.
Dr Ruto visited the pilot’s family at their Karen home where he described Magonga as “a friendly, humble, charitable, intelligent pilot with impeccable credentials”.
The family also wants investigators to help unravel the nature of the business of the American passengers, the individuals that the captain spoke last to and who ordered him to fly at night.
There is speculation that the Americans were on a political mission.
Forti, who was 29 at the time of his death, is described as a prolific figure in the Colorado Republican politics.
He was the co-founder and partner of a political consulting company called D/CO.
Forti's mother, Ann Forti, told NBC News that her son loved to travel and took an impromptu trip to Kenya following an invite from Burke.
The two have known each other since they were teens, she said.
Stapper was running several companies that deal with branding and signage while Baker was part-owner of a brewery and other businesses in Colorado.
Burke, a political consultant, had recently bought land in near Lake Turkana and was in the process of turning it into a helicopter tour experience for entrepreneurs.
A close family member of the Magongas who did not want to be named questioned the manner in which the authorities are investigating the tragedy.
She said it was important to inform the public if the helicopter was returning from a neighbouring country, what it was carrying and why the pilots were flying at night.
Police spokesman Charles Owino said he was not aware of the issue of missing body, but promised to call back with more details, which he had not done by press time.
By Nyambega Gisesa, Kipchumba Some, Ibrahim Oruko, Nyaboga Kiage and Gerald Bwisa.