Mission impossible: Why odds are against Likoni rescue teams

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Operations to retrieve a car that plunged into the Indian Ocean with its two occupants- Ms Mariam Kighenda and her daughter Amanda Mutheu — entered the fourth day Thursday, hampered by heavy rainfall.

But even as the government put on a brave face, in reality, it seemed they were engaging in a futile exercise. For this recovery, the Navy divers who had been trained to dive up to 30 metres deep were hoping to locate the car at 60 metres. At this depth, they faced a host of challenges.

For starters, the morning rainfall meant that the dirty storm water draining from different areas into the ocean complicated the divers’ mission further by reducing visibility.

They would basically need high-powered, head-fitted lighting vision to see clearly under the water, which undersea marine scientist’s say becomes too dark past 10 metres.

For the team in the recovery, this wasn’t the case, as government Spokesman Cyrus Oguna said that because of the darkness of the depths, they would use “feel and touch” to try to locate and identify objects.


This would have instead been aided by using underwater vessels that would go deeper than the divers, with the team on shore only directing them to specific spots.

To their credit, yesterday, using technology and divers, the team worked on the points for close to two hours during which all vessel operations were grounded to calm seawater and increase visibility.

A marine scientist the Nation spoke to said this “suspension was an exercise in futility because international standards would require a suspension of up to eight hours across the channel which would guarantee the team better results as opposed to this short term stop gap attempts”.

The idea of closing the channel for eight hours would come at a cost for the port operations, something that could not be approved.

The team also deployed the use of technology, including robots, as it sought to reach some 14 points that they had identified.

The deployment of the autonomous underwater vehicle, which travels without requiring input from an operator, was seen as the biggest boost that the team was on track.

However, by the time the search was called off yesterday, they had already mapped more than 12 of these points with no success, calling into question the accuracy of the work.

The divers’ oxygen tanks also allowed them to be under water to a maximum depth of 33 metres, from the 30 litres of air they carried, with a 35-40-minute mission before they breached the under-10 litres of air, which would require them to come back to the surface.

The 60-metre depth mission is risky and any delay of more than 45 minutes under water can cause permanent head damage to the divers because of their poor gear. With a targeted depth of 60 metres, past the 40-metre recreational diving depths, their mission was doomed from the start. It would yield nothing.

Around the world, technical diving, which involves breathing special gas mixtures, is what deep-sea divers are now using to go to great depths for undersea explorations and recoveries.

In 1997, Tarek Omar, an expert in deep-sea diving, used this method to retrieve two bodies from the Blue Hole in Egypt, a 70-metre diver’s fantasy ground that has claimed more than 200 lives. Since then, he has been able to recover dozens of bodies from the same location.

The undersea currents, coupled with the constant ship and ferry traffic, also compounded the search, sending the team on a futile exercise.

Twice in the four days, the Kenya Ferry Services (KFS) was forced to suspend operations across the channels for up to three hours, as it sought to calm the waters and ease the divers’ mission. This was not to be. The use of local divers, as opposed to expert divers, also showed desperation as opposed to being tactical. These divers lacked the necessary gear and wouldn’t risk going beyond five metres of depth due to the lack of oxygen tanks.

Were the divers to locate the vehicle, the other challenge would be to recover the bodies. How would they pull them out? What about the vehicle, which scene-of-crime officers were awaiting to inspect as they try to corroborate KFS management’s word that Ms Kighenda had actually engaged the reverse gear?

As the country awaits another attempt to recover the bodies today, a lot of questions remain unanswered. Is the recovery team really knowledgeable about the task expected of them? Why has this task of retrieving the bodies become so complicated? Shouldn’t it be time to bring in the experts trained on this to help with the work?

Meanwhile, a Mombasa-based lobby plans to move to court to sue KFS management and the coxswain who operated the MV Harambee over the deaths of Ms Kighenda and her daughter.

The human rights body, Commission for Human Rights and Justice (CHRJ), accused the ferry management of wilfully operating defective vessels, putting the lives of commuters at risk.

In its demand letter to KFS, the lobby says it will pursue both criminal and civil cases against the management and the coxswain as it seeks to secure justice for the victims.

“We shall hold you to accountable for your omissions and commissions whichever is applicable,” the demand letter reads in part.

On Wednesday, Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho donated Sh2 million to Mr Wambua’s family to facilitate the hiring of a private firm from South Africa to support other agencies.

Additional report by Ahmed Mohamed, Antony Kitimo and Ibrahim Oruko

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