It used to be that the only remarkable thing about Fort Ternan was that it marked the place where Dr Louis Leakey, in 1961, discovered the fossils of an early human called Kenyapithecus Wickeri, estimated to have lived 14 million years ago.
That area, nestled in a picturesque, undulating topography in today’s Kericho County, was largely a remote outpost characterised by meagre dirt roads linking somnolent, backwater villages to emerging urban centres.
But that was until 2015 when, to the excitement of locals, the government completed tarmacking a 75-kilometre stretch snaking through the hills and valleys between Londiani and Muhoroni. The three-year project may have cut short the journey between Kisumu and Nakuru by a mere 10 kilometres, but the comfort it brought to travellers was unprecedented.
Then yesterday, panic hooting, a chilling screech and a loud bang amid screams in the wee hours preceded the horror of a bus crash that killed 35 people on the spot and unceremoniously ushered Fort Ternan into national conversation with terror and infamy.
The number of the dead increased through the day to 55, according to Kericho county Director of Medical Services Dr Betty Lang’at. It was clear the 62-capacity bus was overloaded as 16 more people were still admitted to various hospitals. The county police commander, James Mugera, had earlier said the bus was carrying 61 people and the driver when the accident occurred. Whether this was in tacit defence of manifest lax enforcement of traffic rules by police or out of disinformation is unclear.
To residents of the sleepy Tunnel Village, this was the worst carnage of the 20 or so accidents that have happened in under one year, marking the area as a blackspot.
Mr Mugera said the bus, christened Home Boyz and belonging to Western Crossroads Express Sacco, veered off the road while descending a steep slope, ran over a guard rail, rolled and plunged down about 20 metres, where it landed on a rocky spot. That would suggest human error as the likely cause of the accident although the section of the road has no markings to enhance motoring safety.
“When we got to Tunnel, the bus, at high speed, swerved dangerously. We began shouting … then there was dead silence. I passed out,” said Joseph Oponyo, a survivor. At the wheel was a 72-year-old man only identified as Lucas who, multiple sources said, was familiar with the route. Fatigue or sleep could have set in as he was reported to have driven the vehicle from Kisumu to Nairobi during the day, arriving at 5pm in the evening. He had no reliever as the law requires for long distances.
“I was with the driver at 11 o’clock before I left the bus station for home; he is my friend,” said Simon Waweru, who picks up would-be-passengers from the roadside and directs them to the buses.
Mr Waweru estimated the driver he knows only by the name Lucas was in his 60s, plied the route and, to his knowledge, hardly ever drank alcohol. At the scene of the accident, the bus owner, Cleophas Shimanyula, later said Lucas was 72 years and had worked for the bus company for seven years.
According to National Transport and Safety Authority curriculum for training of drivers, only drivers above 30 can drive vehicles carrying more than 33 passengers. Minibuses carrying 14 to 32 travellers can be driven only by those older than 25.
“All individuals above 60 are required to undergo an annual medical fitness test before they renew their driving licences,” the NTSA says.
It, however, does not say how long this should go on, and at what age drivers should stop being behind the wheel, effectively leaving this to the discretion of the drivers and the vehicle owners.
Mr Jackson Koskei, the first person at the scene, said the accident happened shortly after 4:00AM a few meters from his home. He painted a heart-wrenching, bloody picture and the overwhelming sight of bodies scattered all over with a few survivors writhing in pain and calling out for help.
“When I heard the bang, I just knew it was yet another accident. I rushed to the scene and, amid the confusion, one survivor (a man) who was seated asked me for water, another woman a few feet away was crying out for help as were others. I chose to first assist a four-year-old boy who was bleeding profusely from the forehead,” said Mr Koskei.
Soon, villagers thronged the scene to help the police in evacuation. According to Mr Daniel Kipchumba, eight of the bodies they carried from the scene were of children below the age of five.