What you need to know:
The flight. Today marks 33 years since the Uganda Airlines Flight 775, Boeing 707-338C, registration 5X-UBC, crashed while attempting to land at Rome-Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy. Thirty-three of the 52 occupants on board were killed and among the 19 survivors was Justine Rutabyama, 68.
It is 11 am, and I am on my way to Minister’s Village Ntinda, it is where Justine Rutabyama resides. Uncertain of her exact location, I stay on the phone for directions. But unfortunately, by the time I get to my destination, her phone is off. After 45 minutes of wondering and wandering about, I receive a call apologising for having kept me waiting. “I am sorry, by the time you called I was in for prayers,” she continued to apologise as she gives me directions to her apartment.
Clad in a pair of white jeans and a red bourse, Rutabyama welcomes me into her living room, filled with portraits of the holy family, Mother Mary and Jesus hanging on the wall. There is also a wooden rosary hanging in one of the corners.
Rutabyama usually comes here to pray and celebrate life. She is thankful for the gift of life, especially after surviving the Uganda Airlines crash that her son 33 years ago.
“Whenever I am asked how I survived, I say it was by God’s grace and mercy because at the time the crash happened, I was saying my nights’ prayer preparing myself to sleep as my baby had already fallen asleep besides me,” she recalls.
Raised in the hills of Buziniro, Kanungu, Rutabyama, 68 is the fourth born of 13 children. She says her marriage to Henry Rutabyama, a former chief engineer of the East African Airways, before its closure in 1977 came at the time she least expected. Because at that time she was just 21 years, pursuing a teaching course at Makarere University, in her first year.
“I met my husband through my brother-in-law. This was when I had gone to help my sister who had just given birth. This young man often came to our house and we would have meals together, but even then we were not friends, even when he seemed to have a special interest,” she narrates.
Revealing that her prayer was to date someone at university, yet Rutabyama was way beyond the university level.
She says after several attempts and hitting a dead end, he decided to approach her uncle whom he told about his intentions towards Justine. Parents from both sides played the matchmaker’s game.
In December 1974, the two walked down the aisle at St. John’s Church Entebbe.
Up in the skies
Married to an airline chief engineer, Rutabyama was considered lucky by most of her friends and classmates. And for sure she was lucky, because boarding the East African Airways was easy for her.
“At the time of our marriage my husband was living in Kenya because that was the home of East African Airways and as a must every Friday I would be picked from Mary Stuart hostel to Entebbe International Airport and would fly to Kenya and would return on Mondays to attend classes. This had become the routine,” she recalls her hey days.
The East African Airways, was an airline jointly run by Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. It was set up on January 1, 1946, starting operations the same year. The airline was headquartered in the Sadler House in Nairobi, Kenya.
Rutabyama says after closure of East African Airways in 1977, her husband was transferred to Uganda Airways, a new airline that was starting its operations, as the airline chief engineer.
“When my husband was transferred to Uganda Airlines nothing changed, because my family and I were still accorded the same favours. We still travelled in and out of the country whenever we wanted to,” she reveals.
A prayer answered
Having married at the age of 21, by 1986 Rutabyama had given birth to five girls. And as much as her husband was fine with what God had blessed them with. She says this was not the case with her in-laws.
“They wanted a boy, and at some point, the pressure was too much for me to contain. However, around 1987 God blessed us with a boy and our prayers had been answered,” she says.
With all her five daughters in the same age bracket and a newborn, house work overwhelmed her, but then the joy of monitoring and taking care of her young ones was fulfilling.
In 1988 however, when their son was a year and a few months old, her husband suggested she goes to London for a week-long holiday while he took care of the children. This was an offer she could not reject, but then would not stand the idea of leaving her one-year-old that was still breast feeding.
The fateful day
“My husband was fine with me travelling with our son. I got ready for the trip and if I may recall it was either scheduled for October 7 or 8 1988,” she recalls.
Leaving the rest of the family behind, Rutabyama and her sixth born were seen off to London. She says while in London, she opted for a hotel than staying with relatives.
“Taking a break from everyone would give me a chance to freshen up,” she shares.
It was not long before the holiday came to an end. On October 16, a Sunday she was expected to be on board so as to be home by the next day, October 17.
“That day, the weather was chilly, with a little rain. But even then I went out in search of a place of worship to place my journey into God’s hands. Unfortunately, by the time I got to church, the first service had just ended and I had to wait for an hour before the next,” she explains.
As she waited inside the church, Rutabyama took advantage of the opportunity to recite personal prayers.
Having been blessed by the priest, she found her way back to the hotel where she had left her son under the care of relatives. The weather had her worried of missing the flight especially with the distance between her hotel and the London-Gatwick Airport. It was a three hours’drive. Lucky enough, she was at the airport minutes before the flight would take off.
“At the airport I checked in and being a wife to the airline chief engineer, I was known to most of the air hostesses who also helped me check in. And by 21:10 the flight had set off to Roma-Fiumicino Airport, Italy, the next stop before it would eventually set off for Entebbe,” she recollects.
Noting that besides refuelling, the stop in Rome was to serve the purpose of picking more passengers.
In a flash
Upon boarding, Rutabyama preferred to sit in the main cabin since this was where most of her friends were. But before the plane would take off she says she was requested by one of the air hostesses to sit just behind the cockpit (flight deck area, near the front of an aircraft from which the pilot controls the aircraft) since there was enough space for the baby. However, she reveals that in the early days, all seats were first class.
“During our transit to Italy, the baby fell asleep, I tightened his seat belt to ensure his safety. It is then that I also resorted to my night prayers before sleeping off because I knew the journey from London-Gatwick Airport, to Roma-Fiumicino Airport, Italy would last an hour and that was enough time for my prayers. Thereafter, I would rest until my final destination,” she recollects.
With eyes closed, Rutabyama concentrated on her prayers all through the journey only to be interrupted by the air hostess whose name she recalls as Cissy asking her to tighten her seat belt since they were trying to land.
Meanwhile, the flight was still mid-air, going around in circles. She says on opening her eyes, there was fog everywhere making it hard for the passengers and the pilot to see the runway. Comforted by the crew members assuring them all was under control, she sat back and relaxed, but in flash she heard screams and cries of other passengers on the plane.
Taking a look at the back of the aircraft, she noticed that it had split and the back was exposed.
“At that moment all I could see was fire, hear cries from all over the place. People fell off the plane and for a moment I was frozen. I remember by the time I jumped out of the plane it was not as far as I had seen other passengers fall off,” she recollects.
A mother’s agony
“Everything seemed like a dream, or rather a nightmare because minutes after I got off the plane, I came to realise that I had left my son behind,” she recounts with teary eyes.
Fighting her way back to look for her baby, she heard her son cry so loud as his seat hang upside down in fire with him held by the seat belt. Rutabyama recalls her son’s voice fading away in fire until he breathed his last.
“I came across Fr. Anthony Andrew Zziwa, one of the survivors trying to pull out someone, but at that moment I did not know he was a priest, I pleaded with him to save my son as well, but the fire was too much. It was then that I was held back by the rescue team, but did not want to go knowing I had left my son behind, I thought I would do something to save his life,” she shares.
She says as a mother the moment was unbearable but then she remembered she was still a mother to five other children who too were waiting to be hugged by their mother.
“It was a trying moment, but I just concentrated on God. I thanked him for having saved me even when I had lost my only son. I knew the five would be happy knowing their mother was still alive,” she expresses revealing that the only memories she has of her son was when he was still alive. However, she reveals that knowing scriptures helped her to relate to what was happening to her at the moment.
Reunited with family
“When my husband learnt about the news he fainted and the children, they missed school that day because they all thought their mother and their brother were among the 33 that had died.”
While other members of the family were in tears, Rutabyama was praising God for the second chance at life since she had not suffered any serious injuries.
She says after a week in Rome, she was able to reunite with her family and two weeks later her son’s body was handed over to her. But that was after a DNA test was conducted confirming it was their son.
However, Rutabyama, says after that tragedy, it took about six months before she boarded a plane again.
“At the time of the crash it was after the NRA war and the country was at its worst. I do not think families were compensated.”