Link Bus driver story leaves many puzzled

People look at the wreckage of the Link bus that crashed at Ssebitoli on the Kampala-Fort Portal Highway and killed 20 people on the spot on May 4. The ill-fated bus was being driven by Paul Hassan Ssempagala, alias Big Daddy (inset). PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Record. Ssempagala had a squeaky clean record with Link Bus, a company he joined in December 2007. The road crash at Ssebitoli was Ssempagala’s first in a career that spanned two decades.

Works and Transport minister, Gen Edward Katumba Wamala, revealed on Friday that Link Bus company has been given the green light to resume operations.

The company’s 90-strong fleet was grounded for nine days after a fatal road crash at Ssebitoli on the Kampala-Fort Portal highway claimed 21 lives.

Gen Wamala said “preliminary findings from the ongoing crash investigations” indicate that the bus (Reg No. UBA 003S) “with a valid PSV licence” was not stricken with “any mechanical failure prior to the road crash.” Instead, human error was to blame, with the driver—Paul Hassan Ssempagala—captured on the police force’s CCTV camera “moving at…99km/hr three kilometres before the road crash scene.”

Besides the speed being above the limit (80km/hr), Gen Wamala said “the CCTV…captured [Ssempagala] driving with one arm while the other [was] holding an object yet to be established.”

Ssempagala, 52, and Steven Kaahwa—the turnboy he had worked alongside for nearly a decade—were among the 20 people who died on the spot after the ill-fated bus cartwheeled into a tea estate in Ssebitoli.

Fondly known to some as Big Daddy and others Senior Driver, Ssempagala had a squeaky clean record with Link Bus, a company he joined in December 2007. He was previously on the payroll of Kalita Bus company.

“Information gathered from regular travellers described him as a friendly and trusted person, whose bus, commonly tagged No.2, was the most preferred to board from Bundibugyo [District],” Gen Katumba revealed, adding: “[He] had no history of alcohol consumption.”

In fact, the road crash at Ssebitoli was Ssempagala’s first in a career that spanned two decades. When he joined Link Bus, the first bus he was handed was Reg No. UAJ 782U. It plied the western route of Kampala-Fort Portal to Kasese. Link Bus was taking baby steps in that part of the country.

In 2010, the company opened up another new route—Kampala-Fort Portal to Bundibugyo. Big Daddy had excelled at his duties so much so that he became one of the pioneer drivers on the route. This remained his assigned route until the time of his death. 

Link Bus spokesperson Tom Best Alinde told Sunday Monitor that—as well as the ill-fated bus—Big Daddy also got behind the wheels of buses UAJ 782U, UAK 180N and UAQ 240T.

Last moments

On the fateful day, at around 7am, Big Daddy—who had slept in Bundibugyo the previous day—started a familiar 378-kilometre journey from Nyahuka Link Bus Terminal in Bundibugyo District. His final destination was supposed to be the capital—Kampala. 

Nyahuka Link Bus Terminal manager Hassan Abudu said Big Daddy was his usual jolly self on the fateful day.

“When we saw a Congolese woman coming with seven children to board the bus, [Big Daddy] said the children were five in number and I told him they were seven,” Mr Abudu recalls. “We disagreed on the number of children, and we all entered the bus to confirm the exact number. After a few minutes, the bus set off.”

Buhumuliro mini supermarket in Nyahuka near the bus terminal, was where Big Daddy loved to run an errand. Mr Buhumuliro, the owner of the supermarket, remembers Big Daddy bought juice during that dark morning.

During the short-lived journey, Big Daddy made a stopover at Ntotoro stage, just a few kilometres from Bundibugyo Town. Ms Mariam Nasubunga boarded the bus with her three children. While she survived the crash, all three of her children—including a toddler, who was barely three months—perished.

Getting to Fort Portal

On reaching Fort Portal terminal, Big Daddy made another stopover. During the stopover, he caught up with his longtime friend, Mr Richard Alba Isingoma. Mr Isingoma works as a canteen attendant at the bus terminal. Before that, the duo worked at Kalita Bus company.

On that fateful day, Big Daddy found Mr Isingoma tending to his customers at the canteen.

“A few minutes after the bus had set off, I called him and apologised for not attending to him and he told me it was fine. He told me he had reached Kitumba (five kilometres from town),” Mr Isingoma said, adding: “I asked him to bring my luggage that was in Kampala. We ended the conversation with the Islamic greeting, and he laughed at me because I didn’t pronounce those last words.”

Big Daddy was such an affable character. Mr Wilson Mwambale, a driver who plies the Kampala-Fort Portal-Kasese route, said the only complaint passengers would lodge about Big Daddy was his low speed along the road.

“Up to now, I don’t know what caused the road crash. Those who say it was speeding, I doubt,” he said, adding: “I worked with him for 10 years and I knew him as a person who could drive a bus at low speed, but reach his destination on time.”

Mr Christopher Tusiime, one of the passengers who severally travelled in a bus driven by Big Daddy, described the deceased as a reliable driver.

“Even when he was not around, I had to wait for his shift because with him, you would be sure of safety while on the road. He was such a good driver who was so friendly with passengers and sometimes they would buy him drinks and eats as an appreciation,” he said.

Link Bus eulogy

Mr Alinde said Big Daddy “loved his job” so much that “he was in his company uniform” even when he was not on the job.

“He was a professional driver with a good clean record,” Mr Alinde added.

All of this makes the preliminary findings that Gen Katumba revealed hard to digest. The Works and Transport minister said “the absence of skid marks [at the accident scene] was an indication that there was no attempt by the driver to brake, implying over-speeding at the time of the accident.”

Gen Katumba added: “An eyewitness…attributed the road crash to improper overtaking in a sharp sloping road bend.”

Big Daddy was laid to rest at his ancestral home in Kasozi Muduma in Mpigi District on May 4. 

Mr Brian Marunda described his father as a person who loved his job and family. He added that his father celebrated Eid with his family a couple of days before the road crash.

“He came home and was jolly. He bought food for us. He loved all his children,” he said.

Big Daddy is survived by nine children and six wives.

Compiled by Alex Ashaba, Irene Kirabo, Longino Muhindo & Joel Kaguta