The unsung hero who rescued 16 children in Lake Baringo boat tragedy

Wilson Lemkut, 45, was wind fishing in Lake Baringo last Sunday when he decided to take a break at around noon due to the strong tides.

The boat rider from Kokwa Island in Lake Baringo had hardly settled in his house when his 12-year-old son came running about half an hour later, informing him of a motorboat that had capsized just a kilometre from the Island with several people on board.

Without wasting time, he dashed out of the house, and true to his son’s report, some people were struggling to hold on to the overturned boat.

He quickly concluded they were youths from Salabani who were expected at the Revival Church on Kokwa Island, having learned about a youth service scheduled for that afternoon.

By this time, the tides were stronger but this was a matter of life and death, he told NTV when we caught up with him on Wednesday.

“I had to respond before the worst happened. I knew I had to act fast to save lives,” said Mr Lemkut.

Together with his son, they waded through the rising waves to the spot where the boat had capsized.

They arrived at the scene 15 minutes after the incident happened.

“The boat had overturned and the panicky children, mostly primary and secondary school learners, were holding onto the boat. Others were on top and others clung onto the engine,” said the boat rider who turned out to be the hero in the boat tragedy that claimed seven lives.

Due to panic, all the children wanted to board his boat.

“I noticed that I could not handle the situation alone because there were more children than I expected and quickly asked some of my colleagues from the Island to come and assist us to save them.”

As he waited for the other boat, he pulled 10 children into his vessel while the other seven went into the second one that arrived at the scene.

The first to be rescued was a 12-year-old girl who had clung to the boat’s engine for more than 15 minutes but, due to exhaustion, had slipped into the waters.

He arrived at the scene just in time.

“I managed to get hold of her legs and carried her onto my boat, alongside nine other children who were very traumatised,” he recalled.

Unfortunately, due to the rush to save those who were still in the water, the young girl succumbed at the shores, Mr Lemkut recalled painfully.

“It was just luck that we responded in good time. The tides were so strong that no one dared to wade into the water to where the boat had capsized.”

“The water was so cold that when we pulled some of the children onto the boat, their bodies were numb and could not even talk due to trauma. We rushed them to the Island and gave them tea. Some could have died of cold if they were not saved on time,” he noted.

Before leaving for the rescue mission, he informed the area chief of what had transpired, and the administrator alerted the local authorities.

“The Coast Guards and the police stationed at Kampi Samaki at the shores of the lake tried to come and help but the tides were too strong to allow them to wade more than 10km to the scene. They had to wait until the intensity of the waves reduced at 6pm,” said Mr Lemkut.

The boat rider, who has an experience of more than 30 years of sailing through Lake Baringo, said the ill-fated boat was overloaded because it was carrying more than 23 youths instead of the recommended maximum number of eight.

None of the 23 occupants had a life jacket that would have come in handy in such a situation.

“It was just luck because they were children and they could hold onto the boat for a longer time than older people. Though we lost seven lives in the incident, I am relieved that through the quick response, we managed to save more than 16 children,” he said.

He urged his counterparts to ferry the recommended number of people in their boats and observe safety rules, key among them having life jackets and studying the lake before venturing into ferry people.

“Tides in this lake especially during the rainy season can be so intense. On the fateful day, it was cloudy and the waves were so strong that I had to cut short my fishing at midday. I am tempted to believe that the youths left the mainland when it was still calm, but the tides increased midway,” said Mr Lemkut.

Among those who perished in the tragedy were three children of Pastor Jane Kikenyi of the Kabukoki Revival Church in Salabani, Baringo South, and her brother.

Her eldest son, Elvis Kikenyi, who survived the accident, recalled how the boat’s propeller got trapped by a fishing net and the engine stopped working.

According to the Form Two student, now the only surviving child of Pastor Jane’s four children, when the coxswain tried to pull the trapped engine, the boat swerved owing to the strong tides at the lake, and due to panic, most of the youths jumped out into the water.

“When the boat swerved, those on board jumped out of the boat and only four of us remained inside, but due to instability, the boat capsized. Most of us held onto the engine before another boat from Kokwa Island came to our rescue,” he told Nation.Africa.

Baringo County Deputy Governor Felix Maiyo regretted that the boat was overloaded at the time of tragedy, calling on the beach management unit and boat owners’ association to enforce regulations and laws to ensure passenger vessels ferry the right number.

“Anyone boarding a boat should also use a life jacket to increase the chances of them surviving in case of such an incident,” Maiyo said.

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