We used a hoe to break the padlock - Rakai fire survivors

Thursday November 15 2018

Gutted. The dormitory complex that caught fire

Gutted. The dormitory complex that caught fire at St Bernard’s Secondary School, Mannya in Rakai District on Sunday night. PHOTO BY JOSEPH MUGUMYA  

By Moses Muwulya & Ambrose Musasizi

Denis Ssengeye, a student, says that on the ill-fated day, a number of students had been watching a football game between Manchester United and Manchester City. The game, which was to kick off at 7pm was one of those which the administration allowed students to watch regardless of the time it would end.
Ssengeye says after taking supper, the students excitedly stormed the former computer laboratory to watch the football match which they had impatiently waited for throughout the day.
At around 10:30pm, Davis Kizza, a survivor, says the match ended. Manchester United fans celebrated after their team won by three goals to one, as their counterparts got moody. Loudly, they recapped the exciting game as they made their way to their respective dormitories to sleep.
Richard Mugonza, a survivor, says some students mostly the Senior Six candidates did not go to sleep but went to revise their books for ample preparation for the final exams.
In the various dormitories, he says, students continued talking about the wasted chances and the killer saves made by Manchester United goal keeper, until they finally dozed off.

Rescue efforts
Mugonza, 16, says he was stirred out of sleep by loud screams from students. Frantically, they all started looking for a way out but realised the door was locked from outside.
“However, although the fire spread to the Senior One and Two dormitories, the students managed to get out in time since they could easily open from the inside.
Mugonza says their colleagues who had managed to get out rushed to the Senior Three dormitory to let them out but realised that the door had been locked from the outside with two padlocks. “They quickly went to the warden, who had not heard the loud screams. At first he thought the students were playing a prank but when he realised the severity of the matter, he gave them a hoe to cut the padlock,” Mugonza says adding that it took the students close to five minutes to cut the padlocks as screams were getting louder and louder.
He adds that as they waited for help, they all crowded at the door as some students tried to use blankets to stop the fire in vain. Others tried to break the burglar proof in the windows but could not.

Boaz Akanyizuka, says when efforts to get out became futile, him and other colleagues decided to hide under the bed. After a couple of minutes, he heard someone telling them to get out. “I was weak but had to get up and move towards the door. Sadly, 11 colleagues with whom I was hiding had completely got weak and could not move. They were burnt beyond recognition,” he narrates.
Akanyizuka says more trouble came after the door was finally opened. “The door turns inside, and a number of students had crowded on it. So, the force from outside saw many students fall down while others stepped on them in a bid to escape. However, students worked as a team and managed to save their colleagues,” he says.

Unanswered questions
Reports indicate that the tragedy happened barely three days after pupils of St Nicholas Primary School, Mannya, a sister school, had apparently seen someone attempting to start a fire at the school.
One of the students who was suspected to have been behind this attempt was arrested and his colleagues vowed to revenge.
But one wonders if Mannya Police Station, located less than 50 metres from the school had taken the matter seriously so as to start investigations.
Ms Rose Nalubowa, a member of the school board of governors blamed the incident on some undisciplined students who had been chased out of the dormitories.
“There have been some cases of indiscipline among some students and management recently chased them from the dormitories and ordered them to study while coming from their homes. We hear they instead rented rooms in Mannya Town,” She said
She said these unruly students had also attempted to torch the school a couple of weeks ago but ran away after pupils in the nearby St Nicholas Primary School saw them.
“Some of the students had become a problem. Yesterday (Sunday) they also locked up the Mannya parish priest Fr Emmanuel Kiwanuka in the school chapel as he tried to counsel them,” she added.
Ms Nalubowa revealed that prior to this incident, school management had called for an emergency disciplinary meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) to address cases of indiscipline among some students.
The school has changed three head teachers in two years.
Mr Henry Nsubuga, the school head teacher declined to comment about the incident. St Bernard SS, Mannya, which is a Catholic Church-founded school is among the best performing schools in Rakai District.
Mr Ben Nuwamanya, Rakai District Police Commander, said they have so far arrested three students and a school warden to assist them with investigations. “We are told there have been some cases of indiscipline and the suspects we have got are going to enrich our investigations,” he said.

Other school fires
This school fire is the third in Masaka sub region since the year started.
On June 2, fire gutted a dormitory at Bishop Ddungu Primary School in Lwengo District and pupils’ property worth millions was destroyed to ashes.
In March, fire also gutted a dormitory at Greenhill Primary School in Kifuuta village, Kitanda Sub-County in Bukomansimbi District, destroying pupils’ property also worth millions.
The most devastating school fire in the last decade occurred at Budo Junior School on April 14, 2008 which left 18 pupils and two adults dead.

Other survivors

“Although the fire spread to the Senior One and Two dormitories, the students managed to get out in time since they could easily open from the inside. Unfortunately, the Senior Three dormitory was locked from the outside.”
Richard Mugonza, senior three

“I was weak but had to get up and move towards the door. Sadly, nine colleagues with whom I was hiding had completely got weak and could not move. They were burnt beyond recognition.”
Boaz Akanyizuka, Senior three

“You had no idea where to find other students to rescue them and fire was allover with a cloud of smoke and could not give you time to look for [friends].”
Dennis Ssengeye, senior three