Regina Coeli survivors speak two decades on
By Cletus Mushanawani
AUGUST 3 1991 will remain the darkest day for the Regina Coeli Mission and Nyanga community at large, as it saw 83 students and five members of staff perish at the hairpin bend about 20km from the school.
The B & C disaster shocked the world as innocent students lost their lives at the hands of a driver who was reported to be under the influence of alcohol.
For reasons better known to him, the driver, who also died in the accident, is said to have defied voices of reason from those familiar with the terrain and had the guts to tell them off, saying he had the experience of navigating Boterekwa in Midlands Province.
The survivors, who still vividly recall the events of that fateful night, said the speed devil was warned by a motorist who was driving behind them when they refuelled at Brondesbury Service Station, but instead he threw caution to the wind as he presided over the signing of the innocent souls’ death warrants.
The other painful thing about the disaster is that it claimed the life of an expatriate teacher, Ms Will Stegman from Holland, who had just married.
It was reported that her husband had arrived at the school that fateful Saturday from Holland and was waiting to be united with his wife after the sporting event at St Killian’s Mission near Rusape.
Little did he know he would never meet his dear newly married wife alive.
Although it is almost 23 years after the accident, The Manica Post managed to speak to three of the survivors last Friday and the scars are still to heal and passing through the scene of the accidents always opens healing wounds.
To them, August 3 1991 was the turning point of their lives as all hopes and dreams were completely shattered.
Life has never been the same, as they tell sad tales of missed opportunities in life.
One of them was psychologically devastated resulting in the trauma of the accident taking a toll on her marriage.
The end result was divorce.
Mr Ignatius Bukuta, who was doing Form Four and survived unscathed, said he always has nightmares to re-live the horror crash as it claimed the lives of some of his friends.
“When we left St Killian’s Mission, gaiety and excitement were all over the bus. Although our soccer team had lost to Marist Nyanga in the finals, we were excited that we had given our much-fancied opponents a good run for their money.
“However, something continued bothering me, but I do not know where this feeling was coming from. The hired B & C bus was literary flying.
“The driver was not the one who had taken us to St Killian’s. When we stopped at Brondesbury Service Station to refuel, a motorist stopped to caution the driver, but he would have none of it.
“It seems the caution provoked the devil in him as he increased speed from the service station.
“We continuously pleaded with him to stop for recess, but he turned a deaf ear. He only stopped at Nyanga View when our raucous calls for recess finally got into his ears.
“That was the last time to talk to him as everyone was praying for a safe arrival at our destination,” said Mr Bukuta.
He said what incensed them most was that the driver said he had vast experience of navigating terrains like the Nyanga since he once drove through the Botereka Range.
“I was a straphanger from St Killian’s and after Troutbeck Hotel, my friend, Timothy Sagwidza, offered me a seat. I tried to resist, saying I will only sit after the Nyakamba Bridge, which is the scene of the accident, but he jokingly said I should not worry as our deaths would make headlines in the media.
“As we were about half a kilometre from the accident scene, I realised that the bus had brake problems as it suddenly gained speed. It veered off the road and hit a milepost, but many people did not realise it as fatigue had taken its toll. To me death was written all over.
“I do not know what came into my mind, but I crawled under one of the three-seater benches and held tightly on to the adjacent two-seater seat. I remained in that position which saved my life when the bus hit the embankment.
“The impact blew off the roof of the bus before overturning, thereby dragging all passengers on the tarmac until it finally came to a stop. The whole area was engulfed with shrill voices of pain, but help did not immediately come since it was late at night,” he said.
Having realised that he had survived, he crawled out of the seats to try and offer help to surviving colleagues, but that was not going to be an easy task as many victims desperately wanted his attention.
“The tank of the bus was leaking and I feared a fire would break out. Blood was flowing all over and watching my colleagues dying drove me into action. I rushed to a nearby village, but closed doors greeted me as people were fast asleep.
“I started throwing stones at some of the houses because the situation at the scene of the accident was desperate.
“Only groans were now being heard as death visited my colleagues. Help started trickling in, but very little could be done as the first arrivals could only wail in disbelief. About five men gathered courage and went to the wreckage where they managed to pull out some survivors. I rushed to the Ministry of Transport depot to inform them about the disaster because I knew that their equipment will be of great help in retrieving some of the trapped passengers.
“All the courage I had gathered just disappeared as I could not stand another sight of my dead colleagues and decided not to return to the scene,” he said.
Mr Bukuta said his nightmare was still far from over as he had to be greeted by an empty dormitory when schools opened in September.
“When we returned for the third term, we were only two students in our dormitory out of the 10 who used to occupy it.
“We were relocated to other dormitories, but this did not help as voices of my dying friends would continue visiting me.
“I sat for my O-Level examinations, but the horror of the disaster continued haunting me resulting in me performing below expectations. I had to shift base from Nyanga to Masvingo and later to Mutare for me to recover. I am still bleeding emotionally because this is something we had least expected,” he said.
Another survivor, Mr Moses Dudzai Nyamugunduru, was doing Form Two when the accident happened and was a ‘‘cabbage’’ for two months.
“I lost two full months of life as I was in a comma.
“What I remember was that I woke up on a hospital bed at Mutare Provincial Hospital. I was first operated on in October 1991 and had to spend five months in hospital.
“I am still suffering from a painful leg up to this day.
“No one compensated us, save for the small stipends which we used to get through the Social Welfare, which have since been stopped.
“I was transferred to Goromonzi High School, but the damage had been done and my performance in class deteriorated as the sad tales of the accident continued giving me a torrid time each time they flooded my mind,” he said.
Ms Sheila Doto, who was doing Form One when disaster struck, always develops goose pimples whenever she passes through the scene of the accident. The accident also had a telling effect on her unsuccessful marriage.
“I spent three weeks without uttering a word and was bleeding through the nose, mouth and eyes. I lost two front teeth and although I was a promising netball player, I never set foot on a netball field after the accident.
“The accident also closed doors for me on all educational trips because every time I set foot on public transport, the events of August 3 just triggered a sense of panic in me.
“Whenever I pass through the scene of the accident, I just close my eyes because the pain is just unbearable.
“Before our trip to St Killian’s, my mother tried in vain to stop me from travelling, saying she had had bad dreams, but I ignored her.
“My mother said she had seen her late parents shouting at her in one of the dreams, saying giving me the nod to travel was at her own peril, but I insisted on going.
“It was not only my mother who had these foretelling dreams, but other students would say they dreamt of fields of ripe tomatoes and blood would ooze out of them.
“Before we departed a whirlwind threatened to blow away rooftops, but we were too excited to embark on the journey.
“The priest in charge, Fr Kennedy, had resisted sanctioning the trip, but other officials at the school refused and endorsed the trip of horror.
“The other pointer that disaster was inevitable was the fact that a sheep which was slaughtered before our departure bleated when being slaughtered, which is taboo. A sheep dies silently, but on this occasion that was not the case.
“We are still being haunted up to this day and surely we will die with these sad memories etched in our minds, thanks to the recklessness of the driver who failed to respect our voices of reason,” she said, agony clearly visible on her face while displaying her gaping teeth. Manica Post