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How Titus Naikuni and Kenya Airways Executives Messed the KQ 507 Douala Crash of 2007

[PHOTO/ COURTESY]

By Dan Okwiri

As I pen my Journal and memoirs (may I forewarn you today’s issue is lengthy it’s really a book), I wish to reflect on an event which till today still haunts me, the KQ 507 air crash in Doula (DLA) Cameroon on May 5, 2007.

Since my experience in KQ and especially on the above unfortunate incident, I have internally debated whether I should reflect on it and I feel its time I let the emotions that have battled. Africans rarely document events or their lives. I wish to pen about the human side of the crash and how the bodies of the victims were repatriated back home.

DLA is interwoven with my life journey and I haven’t told the world why the human remains were stuck in DLA for 6 months, with nobody explaining why.

This is the story. I cannot write the whole story as some of it is better not said but before I get to rest this is the general wind of events.

At the time, I had a great passion for my work, it was at the pinnacle of my aviation career as Cargo Capacity Revenue Manager. It was a high-pressure job and amongst my deliverables was revenue target of Ksh100 million a week. Meeting this revenue was constant stress. To attain it was not about just selling space but ensuring that cargo was not stuck at the Kenya Airways cargo hub. That was a constant nightmare.

 

Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni pays his respects to some of the victims of the Duala plane crash when caskets carrying their remains arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in December 2007.

 

In the cargo industry, we have a saying that “cargo doesn’t talk” and because of that you have to keep it under your watch or by the way it will easily stray. Because KQ is primary a passenger airline, cargo was (and probably still is) relegated to lower priority. It doesn’t mean that it gives KQ pocket change for it delivered  $60 million (KSh 6 billion) a year and delivery of that was my call.

It was one thing to sell and another to ensure that cargo gets uplifted. I would often be at the aircraft ramp at 5 am to ensure this is done, otherwise, it is always ignored. The morning cargo hour in aviation speak is called “money hour” as it is the busy hour at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It’s also called the morning wave.

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My loading team always performed a hard job in very mentally and physically taxing and treacherous conditions.

At JKIA, the morning conditions were then constantly very windy as the airport is mostly a treeless plain with the conditions worsened by the constant blast off engines as aircraft take off. Rain and chilly weather are the norm.

Having spent 25 years at the JKIA, you now know why till to date I rarely wear a sweater, pullover, wind-breaker or a jacket no matter the weather conditions. My body had no option but to adjust.

Cargo loading requires grit and it can be physical. Especially on the 737-800s which was then the workhorse fleet to Doula (International Civil Aviation Organisation code DLA), and since this aircraft was not containerized, the loading was bulk (a bit like stuffing your car boot). Do it in a proper way and you will get more cargo in, otherwise, you won’t carry much.

JKIA is huge and by the time we were done with the morning loading, you have easily walked 7-10 kilometres in a space of an hour. It was enough exercise which saw me and my team always lean with many in our lives wondering if we really needed that gym subscription.

The flights to Doula were always sensitive as the cargo were often valuables, usually mobile phones. The Cameroonian traders who dominated the route would fly from DLA transiting Nairobi to Guangzhou in China carrying hard cash, most of the time between $10,000 (Ksh 1million to $100,000 (Ksh 10 million) to buy phones. They were so regular on these flights that some traders made the trip twice a month.

Caskets bearing the remains of some of the victims of the plane crash in December 2007.

They were literally mules.

West Africans are extremely entrepreneurial (especially women) and hard-working people. Their consignments were not easy to handle due to the syndicates at JKIA airport who made a living pilfering valuable cargo. The airport is a closed community with many stakeholders and we all knew each other well. Some baggage porters at the airport dot Rolex watches and the best ones at the game spotted 4 wheel land cruisers. Your guess on how they come to own them is as good as mine. I remember on one occasion a whole container of mobiles whose value was a tidy sum vanished from the airport. How that can happen in a high-security area defeats my logic till to date. I would, therefore, make sure that I was personally at hand or my sales team at the airside to oversee the cargo operations staff so that the mobiles could transit safely.

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Over time I got to know the West African traders personally and they were my bread and butter as they paid top dollar for the freight space. I needed their business to enable me to meet the KQ revenue budget targets.

One fateful morning whilst loading that precious cargo, we got the news that Doula (DLA) Flight KQ 507 we were expecting had gone off the radar. The aircraft flown was a spanking new Boeing 737-800 and she was just 6 months old. In the aviation business I inwardly knew it is was a roundabout way of saying that it may have crashed awaiting confirmation of wreckage, however, it was too early to speculate.

I quickly dashed to operations control to find it who were the crew. In aviation, we worked as a team and these were colleagues I worked with every day and we were all extremely close. I constantly interacted with the crew different times as we loaded flights. The first thing I said to my staff after this crash is that we needed to keep the operation moving normally as we try to establish what was happening as tragic as it is.

Confirming where the wreckage was had taken a whopping 42 hours (I didn’t understand why then as the flight routing I knew was overland and not overseas) and I was later surprised to learn that the crash actually took place close to Douala Airport, a mere distance of four or five kilometres away.

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Inwardly I questioned why they took so long to reveal where KQ 507 had crashed yet it was so near to the airport. Surely anyone could have heard a crash from the airport, but the answer was not forthcoming? In time I would learn why and little did I know that I would be at the heart of it all.

The plane had broken up into small pieces and came to rest mostly submerged in a mangrove swamp with no survivors and 114 fatalities, including 6 KQ crew.

The news would later greatly impact my life in the aviation industry and I was destined to play a crucial role in this crash.

It wasn’t the first crash though I had seen in my career. On Sunday 30 Jan 2000, KQ 431 Airbus A310-300 crashed into the sea off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire, shortly after takeoff from Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport, Abidjan. We lost 169 people that day. Amongst them was KQ Manager for Nigeria, Mr Mugo, a great friend, he had recently been promoted to a managerial position and a foreign posting which meant better pay. A real pleasant chap.

I was pretty broke the weekend of the KQ 431 crash and Mr Mugo asked why I looked so depressed and before I could answer, he dipped into his coat and handed me Ksh1000 and said to me, “Dan go and enjoy yourself, we come a long way.”

Little did I know he was bidding me the last farewell. At the time I enjoyed my usual drink with friends and Ksh1,000 on my hands meant 12 beers. I quickly dashed away to my favourite hunt, Johns Pub in Nairobi West, where all my colleagues were. I couldn’t believe my luck, lest he changed his mind.

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Mugo was hurrying to prepare himself for his flight. The next thing I would hear is that he had died as the aircraft took off from Abidjan! How ironical. How sadder can life get?

Back to the Doula crash, immediately after it happened KQ dispatched a team from its Nairobi Head Office to DLA and set up an emergency command centre to handle the crash victims and their families. In the team, there were reservations staff on stand-by to re-route passengers, psychologists to handle stress, accident investigators, engineers and operations staff. These groups stayed on in Doula up to the end of May 2000, until the flight operations normalised.

KQ then appointed a South African Company to handle the repatriation of human remains and do the paperwork (let’s call this company the X-team). Aircraft accidents are tricky as there are many stakeholders involved (victims, insurance issues, compensation, aircraft manufacturers, civil aviation authorities, Governments, lawyers or ambulance chasers, police investigation, press, public interest etc…)

Poor handling of a crash can bring down an airliner.

The money involved in such a case is in millions if not billions of dollars.

There was a huge inferno as the aircraft crashed into the marsh and almost everything and everyone was incinerated to charcoal. Many people were never found and the rest were reduced to incinerated body parts. The body parts were identified through DNA tests. It was an unspeakable scene.

KQ immediately appointed an international firm based in South Africa whose core business is evacuation and repatriation of human remains after accidents. The first task of the South African firm, X-team, was to gather an inventory of the human remains and then send samples to Europe for DNA analysis and identification. The X-team then hired a refrigerated truck with a container and a generator to power it, as electricity is unreliable in Doula. The human remains that were recovered were stored in the refrigerated truck container and the generator would be on for 6 months throughout the period.

Kenya Airways workers off load caskets bearing the remains of some of the plane crash victims at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi in December 2007.

Doula didn’t have very good morgues so this was the only solution.

Outsourcing evacuation is standard aviation practice but you must have your own staff to oversee. KQ wholly outsourced it to the X-team, a move we later realised was a fatal mistake that would come to haunt the premium flyer. X-team consisted mostly of South African Boers who had serious racist attitudes towards other coloured Africans. These were men and women who had not grown past the apartheid attitudes and practices with the legal racist divide having been discarded in South Africa just less than a decade before the crash.

KQ like East Africans historically had and still prefer engaging expatriates or Wazungus to do their bids, but West Africans are quite different from us by culture prefer working with their own.

After the May air crash, pretty much nothing was happening in Doula after DNA identification of the victims while in Nairobi, the KQ top leadership led by CEO Titus Naikuni kept assuring and reassuring the families of the victims that everything was under control. For months on end, there were promises that the repatriation would start while senior company executives knew that nothing was really happening in Doula. Everybody in Nairobi was blind to what was going on in Doula while the company’s top executives gave promises.

One Monday morning, I got a call that I should report immediately to the CEO’s office in Embakasi, KQ head office. I had never dressed formally in my corporate working life. My dress gear was always standard khaki trousers, a white short-sleeved cotton shirt, a Masai beaded belt, and a Samburu hand bangle I wear for good luck. Neck-ties and Jackets have always been a no-no and everyone got used to my attire. In all corporate executive meetings, though everyone was always suited, nobody ever questioned my attire. After all, they said “he is a cargo man.” As I approached the CEO’s plush office, I was wary of what was wrong since I had no recollection of a recent incident I should beware should have drawn the attention of the company CEO.

Inside the office, I met three men sitting solemnly, Mr Titus Naikuni (CEO), Paul Kasimu (HR Director) and a Mr Njiri (Chief Industrial Relations Officer). In my mind, I was just about to get fired. Had I been meeting my targets? All manner of thoughts crossed my mind. Mr Njiri was the first person to speak. He had worked in East African Airways which Kenya Airways had sprung from, and had done 35 years. He knew almost everyone in KQ really well. I had done 21 years and it was Njiri who recruited me way back in 1986. He knew me really well.

He let the cat out of the bag and said, “we have a problem, and it’s a big problem”.

I stared at him to hear what next.

“We have a mission and have been debating who can solve it for some time and we have concluded it’s you who can pull it,” he explained.

The problem needs someone who is conversant with cargo operations, customs paperwork, passenger reservations, finance and dealing with government authorities and has an understanding of logistics and concluded you fit the mission,” Mr Njiri offered.

“What mission?” I asked?

Naikuni the CEO explained, “It’s now November, our reparation efforts of the human remains following the May DLA crash long hit a wall. We appointed a South African X-team and it’s running 6 months yet nothing is happening and public pressure is building with the situation getting volatile.

Your mission assignment is get the bodies delivered to the families before the close of the year. We cannot afford to cross the next year with this hanging over our heads. The costs are mounting and pressure is getting out of hand”.

“When should I go to DLA”, I asked?

Kasimu replied, “We expect you to go on tomorrow’s flight, and by the way drop everything else you are doing as you don’t have a choice”.

“I don’t have a visa to Cameroon and they don’t have an Embassy in Nairobi, all Visa applications there are done through the French Embassy who act on their behalf and getting visas takes a week” I retorted in protest.

I was reluctant to go.

Kasimu, replied “we know you can go to Cameroon with or without a visa, we have done our homework well and by the way, here is the power of attorney. It gives you the power to commit the company so handle it with prudence. We will go with all the decisions you make, you are a long-serving staff with more than 20 years in the company and trust that you will act in the best interest of KQ. We wish you well, you will need it”.

The meeting ended abruptly.

I drove back to my office at the JKIA cargo village. I was distraught thinking that something was not right? I didn’t have much information on the mission but anyway I had no choice but to go.

I immediately called a colleague Caliste Manga and said “I have to come to DLA tomorrow and you know what I don’t have a visa, I will tell the purpose of my trip on arrival. Can you organise?”

She roared into laughter. We had known each other for years and I instantly knew this was an emphatic YES.

She asked, “has it got anything to do with the crash? The traders have been asking you to visit them for a long time and it takes a crash for you to come? Come as the DLA business community will be expecting you. They want to know about some damaged mobiles.”

Caliste was a regal lady who was in her 50s and was ageing gracefully. Unlike many, she did not conceal grey hair strands and her presence was always stunning. Like most West Africans she was always geared in African clothes with a touch of an earthy modern chic style and donned in African beaded jewellery. She was married to Richard a great-great-grandson of Paramount Chief Doula of which Doula City is named after.

Caliste was multi-lingual, speaking English, French, other European languages and of course, the Doula dialect. I had hosted Caliste several times in Nairobi, she loved shopping for African jewellery, Masai market was always a must go. Caliste was a cargo general agent for KQ among her many business interests. She too had hosted me in Doula before.

The Cameroonians make the most amazing marinated barbecued fish I have ever eaten and this I say from my perspective like a fish lover, I am a Luo, you might have guessed and fish is my preserve. Plantain is also a delicacy I always relish. We don’t have it in East Africa, what a pity. My love for African Art is my weakness and Cameroon is the heart of art. Caliste home was an art gallery in itself. Everything in it was African, the stools were tree trunks. Cameroon makes the most wonderful stools in the world that I know.

The flight to DLA left at 0700 hours and took 4 hours 25 minutes, due to time difference I arrived at 0930 hrs. As I disembarked the aircraft onto the air bridge connecting the terminal, I was intercepted and welcomed by two KQ officers who were waiting for me at the aircraft door. We exchanged greetings and they whisked me straight to my awaiting KQ official car. They said they would work on my visa and deliver my passport to my hotel. That’s what I call being a VIP. I asked the driver to first take me straight to where X-team was, I wanted to finish my assignment as fast as possible. I hadn’t planned to be in DLA for long.

The X team were staying at an exclusive quaint hotel which was decorated extensively with African curios, furniture, masks and art. I would later learn it belonged to a Belgian couple. They were a large group of 8-10 people and used one of the hotel rooms as an office. Walking in, the first thing that got my attention was the sheer number of empty whiskey, vodka and gin bottles. Probably 3 empty cartons of the same. Somebody clearly was having a ball and all this was at KQ expense! I was horrified.

The group had been informed I was coming and clearly from the reception, I was not welcome. I didn’t know who was in charge but an elderly lady with South African accent undoubtedly called the shots. There was a young dark-complexioned handsome African man seated close to her, in his early 20s. He looked like a beach boy type, handsome, wore dark sunglasses with chrome frames, tight Levis Jeans, tight t-shirt cladding his muscular slender frame. The lady introduced herself as Miss Y and said to me that the African lad was her translator. I must say someone had good taste for “translators.”

Cameroon is a bilingual country, half of it speaks English, the other half French but French is dominant. The Francophone part detests the Anglophones vice versa. Doula, where the crash occurred, is Francophone.

In a few minutes, the rest of the X-team walked in and asked me what brings me here? I said to Miss Y straight up – I was incensed by what I had observe – that I had come to repatriate the bodies and I didn’t wish to be there for too long.

Miss Y started to laugh hilariously and uncontrollably. I was totally appalled.

She then said, “Don’t you know we are in Africa? Nothing works here. These people do not have a clue about what they are doing and are backward.”

Wait I minute I suddenly thought am African too.

“The earliest we will be able to repatriate the bodies will be March next year. Do you think you will do anything special to hasten the process that we haven’t already done?” She asked

I paused and asked, “what I need from you are two things. An inventory of human remains with the present status of paperwork for each victim. Secondly, tell me the one big reason inhibiting the repatriations?”

Miss Y went on livid mode and her South African upbringing in the apartheid times surfaced and she began hurling expletives and then said, “Exactly who are you in KQ? Who sent you here. Do you think we have been doing nothing the last six months in this f****** country?.”

As she revved her decibels, the rest of her mates started to cheer. I was outnumbered 10:1. I said to her that they were contractors and KQ was their employer so she better play my ball.

She flung some papers at me and asked: “Are you going to destroy all our efforts so far?”

The shouting match went on until she called Paul Kasimu, KQ HR Director, in her fury, asking why I was in Doula.  From Paul Kasimu’s voice, he sounded intimidated by her.

He meekly explained to her that I hadn’t come to stir things up but to ensure that the stalled job gets done and am now, I was in control of the whole operation.

My instinct told me that we would not work well together and I needed to be careful for if I made any mistake she would stab me in the back. I had humiliated her ego and she felt I was not her equal, this cocky African had to be cut down to size. My instinct would be later be proved right but God would be on my side. That day I knew I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.

Miss Y, after sulking, then said to me grudgingly that the biggest hurdle is that the repatriation of the remains has stalled due to refusal of clearance from the Cameroon Government.

“Who can give the clearance?”, I asked”

She responded, “It can only be authorized by the Office of the President or the Governor of Doula who is the second most powerful man in the country.”

They have been trying to get an appointment to see the Governor and it’s difficult and with that, nothing moves.

I stood up and said, “Leave that to me, the next time I will meet you, I will have the clearance.”

She replied, “if you can get an appointment give me a shout so that we can go together, you might need some information and I could fill you in.”

I stood up from the room, grabbed the papers she had flung with the status of paperwork and as I strode out said: “you guys must be been having a jolly good time and Bombay sapphire whiskey seems to be your favourite.”

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With that, I moved to find my hotel and I knew in the back of my mind that I immediately needed to chat with Caliste and the traders. I had to dig into what the X-team had been doing in town? The most important part of any conversation is often what is not said. This is what I exactly had to know about the X-team.

That afternoon I asked Caliste and few other traders to tell me more about the X-team. They narrated to me that the team was pompous and driving four-wheel land cruisers, all on KQ bills. The local Cameroonians said to me that they frequented the popular nightspots, revelled a lot and were aloof. They definitely were having a great time yet contemptuous of the locals who they criticized with disdain.

KQ, I would get to understand was paying them extremely well. With that, there were no incentives for them to ever leave Doula. Every extra day spent meant more allowances, great weather, beautiful ladies and even men. Why would anyone want to leave such a paradise?

The game plan was to project a terrible image to the KQ kingpins, make the work look impossible and extend the stay as long as possible so that the dollars rolled in. When Cameroon learnt what it was about, they were reluctant to give authority and it all became a stalemate at KQ’s expense. The months kept on rolling.

The most ironic thing is that nobody in the KQ leadership had bothered to go to Doula after the first visit immediately after the crash. The top executives had kept off Doula as the bodies were refrigerated in containers for months. The KQ leadership team relied on skewed reports from X-team while public pressure and anger were building and they had to figure a way out. They believed that doling out cash would solve the issue but it wasn’t.

That evening Caliste called her connections to secure me an appointment with the governor of Doula. I was slotted an appointment in the next 48 hours. I was excited that she had made a breakthrough. I called Miss Y of X-team and asked her to meet me at the governor’s office at the appointed time while I arrived with Caliste.

The governor’s office was an old beautiful colonial building with French grandeur. We were ushered into a waiting room and kept waiting for an hour.

Miss Y came along with her “translator.” He wore his trademark skin-tight jeans and sunglasses, I don’t care for attire but this just didn’t look good, especially for this occasion. As usual, I was in my khaki trouser and beaded Masai belt while Caliste, as always, looked grand in her African regalia.

I thought to my self, what a contrast. I and Caliste sat on one side of the waiting room and Miss Y and her translator on the other, running in mind, I was at odds with myself whether we were representing the same team.

There were so many other questions running my mind; why was the KQ top leadership team reluctant to go to DLA? Soon everything would come to perspective.

As we were all striding into the governor’s office, I was awestruck. The office was really huge. There was a 20-foot mahogany conference table. Seated were a team of 10 men in double-breasted and single cut suits seating on either side of the table, I also noticed some Italian designer suits. There was a pleasant scent of colognes infusion. It was the scent of power and money. These were the men who ran Doula. It was air-conditioned. At the far end sat a man who everyone looked on with deference, I knew he had to be the Governor.

I was a bit concerned though, inside the room there 4 black berated commandos in black military fatigues clasping AK47s with a menacing gaze. What exactly had I got myself into, I inwardly asked?

I began to think, through my experience working in KQ I had trodden most of Africa in search of business. Africa is diverse and West Africans, I knew are extremely different from East African. West Africans are more extrovert, flamboyant, bigger in physical build, cultural domineering, artistic and are actually more African. They are proud of their heritage. East and Southern Africans are Anglophone more introvert, conservative, docile and tend to adopt the western culture, mannerism, accent and use western names and more prone to marring westerners.

That’s why Europeans settled in East and Southern Africa countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa while few if any Europeans had or can settle in West Africa.

As I sat in the governor’s office I could feel the whiff of bureaucracy. The governor then stood up and everyone dutifully shot up quickly. He gazed at me intensely especially at my Masai belt as he weighed me. The Cameroonians were huge in physique I was lanky and casual but smart. I walked up to him greeted him firmly muttering the only French word I could master “Bonjour Monsieur”. He knew Caliste and that really broke the ice as they exchanged greetings in French. I noticed though he was indifferent to Miss Y and her translator.

I usually watch out for body language in communication, people can lie and fake emotions but it’s difficult to conceal feelings in your body language. This wasn’t just any meeting. It was a diplomatic meeting, something I had never quite done. The Cameroonians were cultured in French diplomacy and I was right in their turf. I felt like a little insect caught in a spiders web.

The Cameroonians conducted the meeting in French and had a translator. My translator would be Caliste, We exchanged formalities of introduction and thereafter the Governor set the tone of the meeting.

He told me straight to my face “The Country is irate.”

From the reports he received from the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authorities, the cause of the crash was “pilot negligence.” Cameroon had the most casualties, 37 of their nationals perished. Nobody in the top KQ leadership had bothered to travel to Doula for 6 months to empathise and help through the consoling and recovery process. Instead, KQ sent the X-team of racist Boers to start the repatriation work.

From the reports he was getting from his intelligence team, these people were enjoying themselves in the country yet families had a tragic loss. The KQ 507 captain took off despite the air traffic controller warning of bad weather.

“This is criminal negligence and KQ is criminally liable responsible. Tell me why?” he thundered.

The emotions in the room were octane high. I stared discreetly at the men in the room in black berets dangling the AK47s. Something was clearly wrong and anything could happen to me. This country is not democratic and the system, like in most parts of Africa were dodgy, and here I was a sacrificial lamb.

The Cameroonians suddenly went into a flurry of verbal conversation. No translation went on. The temperatures were burning and suddenly the governor ordered Miss Y and her “translator” to leave the room! This was a clear body signal that he wanted to discuss this in an African way. It would be my turn to play ball and I was caught offside. Nobody in KQ had briefed me about the situation and risks. I believed then and now that they knew what they were thrusting me into all along.

I didn’t want to imagine what was next but my mind was on speed mode contemplating on what to say to rebut His Excellency the governor’s question? It was tricky either way.

I spoke slowly and with respect, saying, “We at KQ are at fault. There’s no excuse we can offer. The top leadership team is reluctant to come and anyone would, for nobody knows the consequences. Cameroon has had its share of political upheavals and most airlines pulled out but KQ despite it all stuck all along. KQ flew to Cameroon despite its years of turmoil.

KQ is the de-facto national airline of Cameroon and we are flying here every day. KQ contributes to a huge percentage of the airport revenues and if KQ goes down Doula will go down too. Africans have issues but we are all brothers and must support one another. This is the time KQ needs your support.

Our costs are mounting and we are bleeding. On the issue of sending expatriates to do the repatriation, this was a mistake and we have learnt something from this. It has a lot to do with East and Southern Africa’s psychological mental complex after colonization we don’t believe in ourselves but everything European.”

This was not the time for me to belt out a contrarian view, I said to myself. The room went silent but I knew what I had communicated was profound. According to aviation regulations, no repatriation could start without death certificates and the authority of the host country, Cameroonian. I needed the authorization. That was the bottleneck.

The governor again went into a flurry of discussions in French and the local dialect. Suddenly he called for a break. I went back to the waiting room and sat with Caliste awaiting fate. I asked Caliste what they said but even she was silent but being privy to the discussions, I was sure she knew what was said. After waiting for two hours, a message was sent. I was required back in the governor’s office the next day at 9 am.

As I left, I asked, “should I flee and take the next flight out of DLA tonight? My instinct, however, told me that I was under surveillance. This could be costly and I decided against it, back to the hotel the night was extremely long and all I could do was pray to the God of Abraham. Before I departed from Nairobi, I remembered that the KQ HR Director had said I needed prayers, now I knew why.

The next day I was back at the governors office and again we went to a flurry of discussions until lunchtime. After lunch I noticed the governor had mellowed, it was a good sign. I stressed to him that keeping bodies unburied is against African customs and we needed to conclude. Suddenly he requested everyone to leave the room including his menacing bodyguards. We were now just the two of us and the doors were shut. I was really worried though trying to maintain my poise. The governor could not speak a word of English so I thought, now he had asked everyone to leave the room and shut the doors. What does this all portend? Am I in deep trouble? What was happening was beyond my call of duties at KQ.

He eased in his chair and suddenly spoke in perfect Queens English and said “Hello.”

I was in shock! All this time we were speaking through translators yet he could understand English all along? He said it’s not prudent to speak English in Cameroon as there is a political divide between Western Cameroon which speaks English and the South-Eastern part which is predominantly French. The Western Cameroonians had been and I believe, are still fighting for cessation. Though from Eastern Cameroon, he learnt his English while studying abroad.

He went on to say he respected the candid manner in which I addressed the problem despite being alone from KQ. By speaking the truth and admitting liability I had won their hearts. Because of that, he had now arrived at the decision that he will authorize the repatriation and I can collect the authorization letter the next day.

However, the authorization has one condition. We have to call an interdenominational church service in 10 days time for healing and national mourning. He said that it will be a big event organized by the state and he expects all the victims’ families plus the diplomats whose nationalities perished to be present.

I was really elated. God of Abraham had delivered me. He has been faithful all ways. As I walked out of my one on one meeting with the Governor with my head high I decided to keep quiet of the new development until I had the physical letter at hand. You never know a lot can change by letting the cat out of the bag before due time.

I was however troubled, I had only 10 days to organize the logistics of bringing 114 families each with up to 3 family members to DLA for this event. The nationalities were strewn all over the world. I had to organize their ticketing and routing at the most economical costs as the company was already burning financially. On arrival, the family members needed to be met by KQ personnel at the airport and ferried to the hotels. They would also need allowances for their upkeep. Each would want to know the status of their human remains even though most bodies were missing.

I also needed to inform the KQ CEO to attend plus the top management team. There was diplomatic representation required due to protocol which the Cameroonians were particular about and this required Kenyan Minister of Transport to head our delegation.

It was all a nightmare.

The next day, I was back to the governor’s office and I soon walked out clutching the valuable authorization letter within a week of my arrival that KQ had struggled to get for 6 months. I was elated.

I immediately drove directly to the hotel where X team were and went straight to their makeshift office and placed the letter on the table, ”This is what you say had impeded the repatriation. We have to start the repatriation process immediately. The holiday is over.”

There was a stark silence by the X-team and an anti-climax in the room. They did not know what to say. Behind my back, I got wind that they had been bad mouthing me and had said I am messing their repatriation efforts. However, with this breakthrough, everybody could now see through their lies. I next called Paul Kasimu the HR Director and said to make sure that he and particularly the KQ CEO attend for the interdenominational service due to protocol reasons plus our Minister. He was truly elated of the development.

I had been wearing the same clothes all week as I always travelled light. I arranged for some allowances to buy some clothes. The next thing I immediately needed was some help to meet, greet and accompany the incoming families to the hotels. I spoke to Mr Njiri our Chief Industrial Relations Officer, to send a Customer Service staff to assist me in the meet and greet as they arrived and he sent a senior flight pursuer. She was a great lady, the late Nancy. She had worked as a cabin crew for 25 years and was really experienced in dealing with people, a godsend.

I believed that nothing happens by chance. It is my conviction that God knew I would be in Doula to repatriate the departed. I had worked in reservations, revenue management, cargo for years and all this quickly kicked in as I did the logistics and planned the itinerary of bringing in the victims families of 400 passengers to Doula for the requiem interdenominational church service. We worked literary 24 hrs together with Nancy with naps in between. I prepared the allowances for all of the families to meet their out of pocket expenses and also KQ met the accommodation costs.

The passengers on board were citizens of 26 different countries together with 37 from Cameroonians and 9 Kenyans. Seventeen passengers had boarded the fateful KQ 507 flight in Abidjan while the rest did so in Douala. Other nationalities involved were: Burkina Faso 1, CAR 2, China 5, Comoros 2, DRC 2, Congo 1, Ivory Coast 6, Egypt 1, Guinea 2, Ghana 1, India 15, South Korea 2, Mali 1, Mauritius 1, Niger 1, Nigeria 6, Senegal 1, South Africa 7, Sweden 1, Switzerland 1, Tanzania 1, Togo 1, United Kingdom 5, USA 1. Total onboard 114 passengers.

Co-ordinating the family members trip to the site was a herculean task. The KQ staff in Doula assisted with the bookings and did a great job.

Handling the victims family members is the most traumatic experience I have had on my life journey. The X-team, though hired by KQ, had turned against KQ. My coming in had cut short their stay and of course their hefty allowances too. I got the brunt as they bad mouthed KQ to the bereaved families. They blamed KQ for the delay and I was on the forefront end of the fury.

I had hired a hall to meet the bereaved families and to discuss various issues with all the 114 crash victim families members one by one. It was a long queue and emotions running high. Some were screaming that allowances were low but there were was another issue I discreetly wanted to know? That was, for each victim who was the real spouse or next of kin? This was more especially so for the African victims. Many Africans do have more than one spouse, however often the world doesn’t know. However, once they depart, so many spouses pop out with claims especially if there’s cash involved.

An aircraft crash victim families get compensation of $100,000 (Ksh. 10 million) or more so you can imagine the drama involved. For the families I dealt with I subtly noted if the victim had more than one person claiming to be the next of kin. I observed, listened carefully, took notes as I dished the allowances and if noticed there was more than one spouse I tactfully asked for all the victims if the parents were alive and what are their names. That was the standard procedure so as not to raise suspicions.

If the parents were alive and the victims had two spouses I made a note known only to myself that I put the consignee (is the person the body will be addressed to) as the parents or surviving parent and skip the spouses. This way I managed to absolve KQ from legal tussles in regard to claims from victims who had many spouses. Interestingly some who had controversies were men of the cloth.

The X-team made the work extremely difficult as they felt slighted. They would call the victims families and blame KQ for the delay in the repatriation of bodies to save face. Both I and X-team were working at a parallel. One case involved a Senegalese. The ambassador of Senegal accosted me demanding to know why we had held his citizenry body for no reason. The spat was in public. I let him vent and when he was through, I said am sorry and slowly told him the truth and promised him that am doing my best to see it through and asked him to give me two weeks. This I would do (i thank the God of Abraham) and the Senegalese Ambassador did write me a letter of commendation from their government thanking me for my great work in the repatriation of their citizen.

Another painful case that I remember like yesterday involved a relatively young Indian lady. She lost 5 family members, these were her husband, her brothers, her father. Her piercing stare literally eyeballs to eyeball, we were two inches apart.

Gripping my collar she would ask, “I have lost all my family members and you can’t produce a single body? For 6 months I have heard nothing from a KQ. I have nothing left and no real reason to live.”

So pained was she that she didn’t tear but her emotion still reverberate my soul till today. All the human remains of her family members were never found. I still struggle with her emotions to date. Every day I ask how she is? Indian women do not remarry so I know she really must be lonely and no amount of compensation will make a difference.

The Europeans families were another difficult group to handle. Especially the South Africans. They believed in what the X-team had fed them as they were country-mates. With time they too would mellow when they came to realise the real situation on the ground.

After my meeting with each member of the victims’ families, I hired buses and organised a trip to the accident crash site at the swamp area known as Mbanga Pongo. This was part of the healing process.

On-site was a small village. The villagers described the floating jet oil and the inferno. Many of the families wanted to connect to what happened, particularly those families where no bodies were found like the captain family. To these families, this was the real funeral event. The reality is it is difficult to conduct a funeral without a body. Emotions overwhelmed us all, everyone broke down. People do have different faiths but we are all human at the end of it all. At the site I noticed some of us collecting soil to take back home, most were families with no remains. This was the only memory they would have of the beloved. It was a painful day.

The D-Day of the requiem interdenominational was approaching and I went to the airport to meet the Kenyan delegation for the event. I was expecting the Minister of Transport, our CEO Mr Naikuni and Director HR Paul Kasimu. As they alighted from the plane I only spotted HR Director Mr Kasimu, the Minister of Transport didn’t come, he sent the Permanent Secretary instead. KQ CEO Naikuni was not there, he said he was busy with other engagements. I was disappointed.

The next was the big state event. It was huge, I must say. VIPs and diplomats galore, victims families and the Cameroon nation was in mourning. Everyone dressed in black. I wore a Mandela type African shirt. Suits are not my preserve. To avoid a Diplomatic spat, I said that PS is the Minister. They would feel Kenya didn’t care or belittled them if they knew we had sent a person of lower rank. I told them that the CEO couldn’t make it due to an emergency. I sat in the front row. I too was a VIP that day representing my country, Kenya. It was an emotional occasion and thank God it really went well.

After the event, I had to see all the victims families off. It was hectic dealing with the 114 families including their relatives and bid them farewell. The second phase of my work was about to begin executing the forwarding of the human remains back to the families. Strange as it may sound, before the crash they were passengers now they would be going back as cargo. Handling cargo was my profession as lucid as it sounds. I made a promise to them that they would get their remains in two weeks. A day after seeing them off I fell really sick.

I got ulceration in parts of my body. Had really been under intense pressure for some time. I hadn’t been sleeping much and was a punching bag for many. The X-team, the victims’ families and the paperwork had really worn me down. I needed medical attention and went to a public hospital which I was told is the best. The hospital walls were blue and most hospitals back home are white. It looked grim and the queue long.

After examination, the doctor told me I was suffering from syphilis. I was astounded! Couldn’t believe it? Immediately called my wife. We had a heated exchange and she asked me how I got it and I said to her she is the cause. The exchange was going nowhere so I cut it off. By then I was a broken man. The next morning I called the Doula KQ Accountant, a Kenyan lady, and explained my issue and she laughed incessantly and said the medical facilities in Cameroon are poor and if she is ill she prefers to take a flight back to Kenya for treatment. She, however, referred me to a private doctor for a second opinion. After the consultation I got a different opinion, the ulcerations this doctor said were caused by hot humid weather, extreme tension and he wondered about my diet.

To tell you the truth, I hadn’t been sure what I had been eating all along. He gave a prescription, within three days I was fit as a fiddle.

I had been eating out trying local dishes as I was tired of hotel cuisine. Had been consuming lots of white meat which I presumed to be fish. I decided to ask my local friend where do these guys source their delicious fish. He put me in a taxi and we went to the local market. Lo and behold! There were heaps of dried monkey carcasses eagle spread, baby crocodiles with their nozzles tied shut, pythons, snails. I was horrified. It flashed in my mind I had been eating bush meat all along. I couldn’t dare scream as it would offend my host. There were market women with axes hacking the pythons, crocodiles, they would chop whatever part you wanted, measuring by the kilo.

I left the market in stark silence and I knew that the meat I had enjoyed so much was python. I made a decision, no more street food for me. From now it had to fish strictly on the bone with either rice, chips or plantain. My culinary adventure was over.

The next week I started planning the uplifts of human remains. The logistics were a nightmare because it was not just about consigning the remains back to the nearest airport in the country of the victims’ domicile but to the doorstep of their homes.

In Africa, the distances between peoples homes and the nearest international airport can be really great, even 500 km away. So it involved some charters. I had to figure the best way to do it while keeping the costs down. Many of the remains, I would route through Nairobi and I must commend my cargo officers Evans Maisiba and James Kimani who coordinated the forward transit of the remains I sent through Nairobi. They worked at odd hours to make it happen.

Painstakingly, I had to deal with all remains found or not found, tick each one-off. The Indians and Chinese remains were a bit tricky to handle as by their faith and tradition had to be cremated. There was no crematorium in Douala and Indians are few in West Africa. We had to get an Indian resident and cremated the bodies in an open field. I represented both KQ and families. We placed firewood on the remains. The Hindu sage recited hymns and chanted the prayers. We sprinkled rice and ghee on the pyre.

The sage drew three lines signifying Yama (deity of the dead), Kala (time, deity of cremation) and the dead. Prior to lighting the pyre, an earthen pot is filled with water, and the lead mourner circles the body with it, before lobbing the pot over his shoulder so it breaks near the head. Once the pyre is ablaze, we circled the burning pyre once, I did it on behalf of the family. We then conducted Kapala Kriya, or the ritual of piercing the burning skull with a stick to make a hole or break it, in order to release the spirit.

Since the skull had disintegrated due to the impact of the crash we instead poked or pierced the pyre and the fragments of the remains we had. The ash from the cremated remains was given to me as I represented the family. I would later carry the remains back to the victims’ families. I had studied in India so am familiar with Indian deity, culture and language. I still do yoga practice till today.

My past life in India came in handy in handling this task.

Out of the 114 victims, only 58 human remains were found. These were forwarded to USA, UK, CAR, China, Ivory Coast, Congo, Egypt, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritius, Switzerland, South Africa, Tanzania & Togo.

The last human remains I freighted were the cabin crew remains.

Unfortunately, the captain’s remains were never found. Handling the forwarding the remains of the crew was extremely sentimental. These were people I knew and worked with for decades. I draped the coffins in cloth and put roses on top that had flown in from Kenya. The whole of KQ was awaiting the remains of the crew. It was going to be a state function. I was to be on the flight. The work that I had come to do had been done. This was my moment of glory but also in many ways sadness. Everyone in the company and country was waiting to receive the crew remains.

However, there were some things I still hadn’t done and I needed to ensure that I had tied every loose end and mitigate every liability legal and otherwise. That KQ could have. I would therefore not be able to accompany the remains home.

I stayed behind and tied all the loose ends. KQ came out of Doula unscathed. My job was over.
I returned a week later and in my briefcase, I carried a special consignment that I had kept all along in my room. These were the remains of the Indians and the Chinese. As I landed in Nairobi JKIA, there was nobody to receive me. I had arranged to hand over the cremated ashes to the captains of the flights that were proceeding to Mumbai and China. Once the remains got to these destinations a courier would forward them to the bereaved families. I followed up on the phone and ensured this was done meticulously. I could not afford to lose any remains after all this work.

I arrived JKIA, Nairobi in the weekend, tired, haggard and in many ways a changed man. My view of many things in KQ would never be the same. KQ was at its peak in 2007 when the crashed happened. It had overtaken Ethiopian Airlines in passenger numbers and was the number one airline in Africa. Pride and arrogance somehow set in its leadership. I always feel it’s easier getting to be number one than maintaining number one. Africans generally have weak maintenance culture.

After the crash in 2007, KQ somehow had lost its soul. It’s journey downhill started from that point.
The next week after my arrival I met CEO Naikuni and HR Director Kasimu to give them a post mortem brief of my concluded mission. I expected some recognition but there wasn’t much. I later complained to the HR Director. If the Senegalese Government expresses their appreciation, then why not my own employer? The HR Director wrote a letter of appreciation as an afterthought after my expression of dissatisfaction and hearing that the Senegalese had shown their appreciation.

Later I would hear that the top leadership team received cash bonuses as appreciation for their handling of the KQ crash, I was totally dismayed how KQ treats its employees. Salaries of the leadership team were confidential so I was never able to confirm it. I received nothing but a letter. However, I do know that the victims appreciated what I had done and bless my hands every day.

After 2007 KQ deceleration increased. The top leadership team had an unwritten policy of exiting experienced staff. They were difficult to deal with as the questioned the ongoings.

In place, young inexperienced cheerleaders replaced the older hands. This new group came on higher pay packages and this affected the company pay structure and lowered morale. The commercial department lost its technocrats and engineering too was badly bleeding. All this was happening as KQ leadership mooted an ambitious strategy to triple its aircraft fleet at that time under a project known code-named Mawingu.

They intended to have a fleet of 100 aircraft by the year 2020. There were internal tussles over whether to replace the ageing B777s fleet with Dreamliner or Airbus. Different factions had different interests. As the tussles raged Ethiopian Airlines (ET) would become the launch customer of the Dreamliner. KQ was meant to be the Dreamliner launch carrier in Africa but with tussles, Ethiopian (ET) quickly moved in. Many world carriers had ordered for the Dreamliner and there was a backlog so there was a delay before KQ received its first Dreamliner. ET got a head start and it’s marketing team really rode on the Dreamliner. ET quickly ate into KQs market share and KQ has never recovered to date. During the dithering in decisions of which aircraft to go for KQ lost its top brains who were fed up of redoing business cases.
One of KQ strategic team walked into my office and said, Dan, we have done the business case several times and there’s no end in sight. My dear colleague of 20 years, I am resigning. I can no longer continue. You too will not last in this environment.

Tussles were everywhere and it became increasingly difficult making decisions that would benefit the company. Too many interests were involved in every commercial decision. It was a struggle to allot car space, there were too many interests and KQ would get raw side due to people who had influence at the top. I started to look for a job outside KQ, something I had never thought about. KQ blood had flowed in my veins. It had nurtured me grown and built me. I joined KQ as a boy and I was now a man. Had been an apprentice trained by the older East African Airways workers where systems worked but in a new world where peddling influence mattered more. Increasing the older staff were referred to in a derogatory way by the new elite who really didn’t have a clue of the business.
I applied for a job in Qatar Airways and was appointed Regional Manager for Cargo in Africa. I tendered my written resignation to CEO Naikuni, he would call me and asked me to reconsider? KQ decided to lure me back and would match Qatar Airlines offer. In my naivety, I fell for the bait. This was a grave mistake and something I would later come to regret. KQ increased my salary tremendously but I was now a marked man. A fattened cow for slaughter.

Once you decided to leave never turn back, I should have learnt from my readings in Genesis 19, Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.”

While fleeing, Lot’s wife turned to look back and was turned into a pillar of salt.

Behind the scene, they began headhunting for a replacement behind my back. My job was later advertised and I re-applied, I shouldn’t have bothered. My interview was conducted at 8 pm at night. The interviewers were not people who had much cargo experience, so there was little they could ask and within 10 mins it was done. It was clear they were not interested in me as a candidate, they already had directives from the top and were conducting a kangaroo court. What they were really doing is a technical procedure to declare me redundant as I had fallen out of favour with the top leadership.

The next day one of my cargo clerical staff a pretty young lady walked into my office on Wednesday and told my boss “your dye was long cast, you stepped on toes, and refused to play ball, you will be fired this Friday at 2 pm. The HR Director will be sent to your office to give you your redundancy letter.”

Knowing how close she was to top leadership I packed my belongings that very evening. I knew it was my turn for my head to roll on the guillotine block and expended like tissue. This was the leadership’s corporate culture. Despite it all, I would not succumb and will walk away with my head high.

Come Friday, the HR Director walked in as she said and handed me my dismal letter with a retrenchment package. KQ had broken down administratively, it operated in Gestapo. Lower staff had direct contact with top leadership, managers were toothless. It was a sad situation. He said to me to go through it and sign it and bring it to him personally on Monday.

It was one of the worst weekends in my life as I contemplated what to do, but this time my mind was clear. I could not be part of what was happening in KQ, I should not contest the decision but pick my benefits and run. On Monday I arrived at HR Director office. He had instructed his secretary, a lady I had known over the years that he was too busy to see me. He perhaps could not face the guilt.

This was the same the people I had worked with to rescue KQ after the crash in Doula.

Before I drove off with my pension cheque in hand, I picked my phone to call the CEO Naikuni. I wanted to tell him, bye. The phone calls went unanswered. He would never bother to take my calls. My fit for use date had expired. I had served KQ for 25 years and I befitted at least a farewell. I was struck at the way the company discarded employees, use and dump was its bane. This predicament was not mine alone and much older experienced staff were treated the same way and were also dumped in the same manner. My journey with KQ had ended.

However, the God of Abraham is great and he had let me out to start a new beginning before the titanic began to sink. With the retrenchment package, I started the Migori Country Lodge. Am now an entrepreneur and changing peoples lives.

In time the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority (CCAA) released the official cause of the crash. The official accident investigation report said the probable causes of the crash to be “loss of control of the aircraft as a result of spatial disorientation . . . after a long slow roll, during which no instrument scanning was done, and in the absence of external visual references in a dark night. Inadequate operational control, lack of crew coordination, coupled with the non-adherence to procedures of flight monitoring, confusion in the utilization of the autopilot, have also contributed to causing this situation. Flight KQ507 had been airborne for just one minute forty-two seconds. The CCAA cited a “lack of rigour” in piloting and poor situational awareness, noting that the crew did not properly scan their instruments despite the lack of external visual references.

In short pilot error.

KQ 507 was one of three scheduled to depart from Douala Airport around midnight that day, with two other flights operated by Cameroon Airlines and Royal Air Maroc. The aircrew of the Cameroonian and the Moroccan companies elected to wait for the weather to improve, while the Kenya Airways crew decided to depart, as they had already been delayed over an hour and the pilot felt that the weather had improved enough for departure. The pilot in command nonetheless failed to seek takeoff clearance from the Airport Control Tower and the aircraft departed Douala at 00:06 local time on 5 May (23:06) the flight was due to arrive in Nairobi at 06:15 local time.

As I read the accident report I recalled that day I met the Douala Governor and I now understand the anger of all the people in that room. For them I represented KQ. It’s a miracle that God touched his heart and he made the repatriation happen before the year 2007 ended.

Overall I must also acknowledge the efforts of the X-team. Despite the challenges, the work got done in the end. They were instrumental in the DNA identification, body preservation, death certificate documentation and handling the Europeans who passed on,

Till today I remember that Douala KQ 507 flight. It just won’t go away. It was exactly last year that I had a prostate operation and thought to myself that I might depart too without telling the Douala story. The 114 souls may ask me why they lay unburied for many months. Nancy the KQ lady who assisted me in the repatriation has since passed on and her story too never told. She also did sterling work and the Ghanaian chief victims family invited both of us on a personal note to Accra to attend the funeral of their son which she well did. I am still in touch with Caliste and she remains a friend, Richard her husband has also since passed on. More than anyone Caliste was the key who unlocked Cameroon. God bless her.

There’s one person I still can’t forget, the Indian lady who lost all her family members including her husband. The glaze of eyes is un-erasable. I often wonder how she is.

With many years gone, a lot of water has passed under the bridge even then some of the events I still haven’t said, it’s better that way for I will take them to the grave. Flight KQ 507 changed many lives. Airlines by tradition delete a flight number series once it has an accident and renames with another. They consider it bad luck.

Despite it all, KQ walked out clean in Doula and I always say to myself this is my greatest achievement and that alone is my biggest reward. By Dec 2007 the tragedy of Douala was done and largely closed. The souls though have never let me rest and I know today they will.

I dedicate this memory to the older staff who served KQ with dedication, making it the real pride of Africa. Though you lost your jobs because of mismanagement of great African gem and many since died with depression, today I honour you for you all truly great. A company is run by the human spirit and today in a subtle way you will understand when I say, KQ lost its soul.

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Dan Okwiri

Written by Dan Okwiri

Dan Okwiri worked in KQ for 25 years (1986-2010). He has extensive experience in all aspects of the aviation business. He was part of the strategic team that turned around KQ, making it the number one airline in Africa.

Dan is a holder of an MSc in Air Transport Management from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, Chartered Member, Institute of Transport & Logistics UK, Certification Diplomas from Boeing, IATA. Awards for Handling of Cameroon Air Crash, Most Safe Manager Award. Experienced Aviator in Airline Economics, Operations, Revenue Management, Commercial and Cargo Handling.

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