Day of grief as road carnage claims 28 lives

Some of the Link bus accident victims at Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital.  Photo / Alex Ashaba

What you need to know:

  • There were questions as to the cause of the accidents following reports that Big Daddy was an experienced and rarely speeding driver who had a relatively clean two-decade work record.

Four separate motor accidents – three in western and one in eastern part of the country – yesterday claimed 28 lives.

Among the deceased are  Zephrino Byabashaija, a Local Council I chairman in Rukungiri, Nkuruma Jimmy, a registrar at Mountains of the Moon University, Tooro Kingdom youth official Emmanuel Kasaija, and health worker Suzan Alum.

 The accidents happened in Kyegegwa, Rukungiri, Fort Portal and Mbale-Tirinyi highways.

In the latter incident, three cars smashed into each other, killing seven people, after a taxi overtaking another rammed head-on into an oncoming Raum vehicle.

Preliminary police investigation links the chain car crashes to speeding and recklessness of the taxi driver who was overtaking without ascertaining the way was clear.

Kaliro High Deputy Headteacher David Mulabi, who was driving the Raum, died on the spot. All the vehicles were yanked into Namatala River and rescuers retrieved bodies of the dead and the injured metres away where the fast-moving water swept them. 

 It was not possible to ascertain the number and particulars of persons injured in all the accidents because the cars lacked passenger manifest, and pedestrians were caught among victims. 

 The worst of them all was the Link Bus crash outside Fort Portal City in which the driver, posthumously identified as Big Daddy, died.

 Two children, both under a year, reportedly perished in the 10am crash in a tea estate at Ssebitoli corner towards Kibale National Park.

Onlookers mass at the accident scene on Fort Portal-Kyenjojo road after Kaswa trading centre. Photo / Alex Ashaba.

 One family in Bundibugyo lost three members; Gift Asiimwe, Daphne Alinda and Devine Alice.

 There were questions as to the cause of the accidents following reports that Big Daddy was an experienced and rarely speeding driver who had a relatively clean two-decade work record.

Investigators discounted initial reports that a front tyre burst propelled the bus to somersault, causing the worst accident in Link Bus company’s history since its establishment in 2003.

Police were by last night still piecing up evidence and taking statements from survivors and witnesses to establish the cause of a tragic Link Bus yesterday morning.

Up to 20 passengers died on the spot, and police and health workers said the death toll could likely rise.

The Kampala-bound bus was en-route from the western Bundibugyo town and had a stopover in Fort Portal City to onboard more passengers.

Barely a dozen kilometres away from the terminal and 15 minutes into the trip, the fully-loaded bus struck a roadside guardrail and tumbled.

Witness account

 Witnesses said it careered and plunged into a tea leaves collection centre building before it ploughed through and overturned multiple times several metres into the tea plantation.

 Ms Annet Kasiime who hails from Mugusu Sub-county in Kabarole was on board and headed for studies in Kampala.

She said when they passed Kaswa Trading Centre, the driver increased speed, but as he negotiated Ssebitoli corner towards Kibale National Park, she heard a bang of an unknown cause.

“…we were all shocked inside and immediately the bus started overturning,” she said, “I don’t know whether the people I was seated with survived or not because after the bus overturned, I found myself lying in a pool of blood lifeless. But thank God I am still alive.”

Out with minor injuries on the head, arms and chest pain, Ms Kasiime could not find her bag containing academic documents.

 Mr Vincent Twesige, the Rwenzori West police spokesperson, said the accident happened about 5 kilometres away from Kaswa Trading Centre and 15 kilometres from Fort Portal city at around 9:50am.

“We have confirmed that 20 people died on spot during the road crash, the bodies were taken to Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital for post-mortem. We are yet to identify the actual number of other people who sustained injuries who are also admitted,” he said.

Eleven of the deceased were men while 9 were females.

Mr Yassin Kisembo flagged the bus at Mpanga Market stage in Fort Portal City so that he could board, but the bus did not stop. So, he hitched a ride in a taxi, which drove two cars behind the bus.

Shortly, he saw the bus suddenly propelled off the road and rolling over multiple times into the tea plantation. For him, it was relief that he survived, confusion about the cause and pain he saw many losing lives in split seconds.

In corroboration of accounts offered by others, Ms James Tusiime, a witness, said the bus struck roadside guardrails before it overturned.

Tea workers were the first responders to rescue the victims, he said.

 Later, they were joined by Uganda Red Cross Society volunteers overseen by Mr Joshua Ahumuza, the Kabarole branch manager, residents and travellers.

Five ambulances with blinking lights and loud sirens powered to the scene to lift victims who in the moments shortly after the crash were ferried to Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital, Kabarole hospital and FINZ medical university on the back of police and private pick up trucks.

The rescue operation paralysed traffic on Fort Portal-Kyenjojo Road for about two hours.

Critical condition

At Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital, overwhelmed staff worked overdrive to save lives of the injured.

Ms Joyce Munakenya, a senior nursing officer in-charge of the surgical ward, said nine patients were in critical condition.

Three had crushed arms, another three suffered spine injuries while the last three were wounded in the heads.

“By the time we started receiving victims we had limited supplies that we had stored for emergencies, we were helped by UPDF of Mountain Division and [Uganda] Red Cross [Society] who gave us other supplies and medical personnel to work on patients,” Ms Munakenya said.

All the hospitalised victims --- 50 of them at Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital alone --- were reported alive by the time we went to press last night. Two were transferred to Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala for further management.

The hospital Administrator, Ms Beatrice Batamuliza, said the number of victims overwhelmed the facility as victims filled the emergency ward.

A breakdown pulls a wreckage of one of the vehicles that plunged into River Namatala, following the three-car accident on Mbale-Tirinyi road on May 4, 2022. PHOTO | KOLYANGA MUDHANGA

 “Our outpatient department and emergency wards were full of patients at first and others were put on the floor and later we resolved to look for more mattresses and we put them in the Covid-19 tent because it was empty and it’s where they are now getting treatment [from],” she said.

The worst mishap in Link bus history

Link Bus Services Limited, which has a fleet of 90 coaches, had not registered a terrible fatal accident until yesterday in its nearly two-decade history. The transport company was founded in 2003.

The Fort Portal accident claimed 20 lives, but health workers and police hinted that the death toll could go up.

Link buses have previously been involved in accidents, but the number of those killed had never exceeded six.

The most recent worst mishap involving a Link Bus, which until yesterday was its worst, occurred at Wabigalo in Nakasongola District and four passengers died.

In that incident, witnesses and investigators reported that one of the tyres was deflated by a puncture, resulting in the driver losing control of the bus. The vehicle overturned killing some of its occupants.

Another accident that happened in Fort Portal-Kasese road in 2013 claimed four lives.

Both accidents were attributed to tyre burst as was the preliminary cause of yesterday’s crash in Fort Portal.

Link bus operates on routes from Kampala to Kasese, Masindi, Hoima, Fort Portal, Bwera, Bundibugyo and Kaiso Tonya. The terrain along many of the routes is undulating and there is minimal traffic, which police said may explain fewer than expected accidents on highways. 

In the Ministry of Works and Transport quarterly public hearing for bus owners and managers, transport officers regularly cited Link Bus as one of the companies that comply with the route charts and other regulations against accidents and unhealthy competition. By Andrew Bagala