A truck rammed into a crowded market at Kampepuza in Ntcheu yesterday around 8am, killing 20 people, 17 of them on the spot and injuring nearly 31 others.
Police said among the dead are four children—one as young as four—and two men, but 13 are women who had thronged the market to sell or buy merchandise at the open-day market.
The popular Kampepuza market, was filled with a mix of vendors from near and far, and locals when the large semi-automatic freightliner hurtled into it smashing makeshift stands and ploughed through heaps of second-hand clothes.
The truck, registration CA 1152, which carried bags of relief maize for the Department of Disaster Management (Dodma), later came to a halt on its side with its nose buried deep into the soil.
Eye witnesses said the truck driver, who was driving from Lilongwe to Balaka, had lost control of the vehicle before ramming into five stationary minibuses and plunging into the crowd.
The driver was immediately arrested.
But as wailing mothers looked for their loved ones among the pile of destruction, locals started to realise the fatality of the accident.
People who appeared to have broken limbs and others that were seriously injured had to be rushed to Ntcheu and Balaka hospitals.
Several lifeless bodies were transferred by police and well-wishers to Ntcheu District Hospital where they were laid on the hospital floor for relatives to identify them.
Ntcheu Police Station spokesperson Hastings Chigalu said police are investigating the cause of the accident.
“We are yet to interrogate the driver who is in our custody,” he said.
Confirming the death toll, Ntcheu District Hospital health promotion officer Stella Kawalala said four people, who were seriously injured, have since been referred to Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe.
At the district hospital the cries were deafening. “Abale mwana wanga alikuti?” [Help me understand, where is my son?],” one woman cried hearted broken.
Hospital staff could not stop her crying as she pushed her way to where the bodies lay on the floor: “I want my son, I want to see my son,” she cried. The deceased is a four-year-old boy included on a police list of those killed.
Another woman, Jese Yezani, from Mkonde Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Champiti in the district lost five relatives from her village.
Yezani refused to enter the hospital gates to see her dead relations. She witnessed them being killed.
“Ndikomoka ndikangolowa, ndisiyeni [leave me to mourn here, if I go in I will faint]” she cried.
Yezani, who was selling tomatoes along the M1 Road when the truck lost control, said it was a miracle that she is alive.
“It happened so fast,” she said. “There was very little that people at the market could have done. They just heard loud cries and saw the crowd.”
Some of Yezani’s five relations were selling pumpkins alongside her.
“I saw the truck coming towards us and we all stood up. We tried to run away but I am the only one who survived from our group. The others were hit,” she said fighting back tears. “I saw the truck landing on my relations’ heads.”
Locals cried out that the accident could have been avoided.
“Kampepuza and other markets along the busy M1 Road need to be closed. This accident could have been avoided if the market was moved to another location,” some young man suggested at the scene.
In an interview yesterday, head of Traffic Police Department MacPherson Matowe, said while the Kampepuza incident is a sad development, like most traffic accidents before it, it could have been avoided.
He said although his department is mandated by law to prosecute those vending along the roads, the blame should lie elsewhere.
“We have always raised concerns against such roadside markets; unfortunately, stakeholders choose not to care. It’s unfortunate that some do not listen, now we have lost so many lives at one go,” Matowe said.
He said traffic police are vigilant in promoting preventive measures but there is a limit to what they can do.
“People need to be responsible for their lives and not react only when the authorities are on the ground to enforce the law,” he said.
Comfort and support
Minister of Civic Education Everton Chimulirenji, who is the outgoing Ntcheu North East legislator, speaking when he visited the victims at Ntcheu District Hospital after the accident, said government will assist the bereaved families as well as the injured.
He said government will provide coffins and money for funeral arrangements of all the victims. The bereaved families will get K150 000 each while those that have been admitted to hospitals will receive K50 000.
“This is a great tragedy for us as a nation. Let me, on behalf of the President, send condolences to all bereaved families,” said Chimulirenji.
Minister of Information and Communications Technology Henry Musa, in a statement yesterday, said government is trying to establish the cause of the accident and will release details in due course.
The Ntcheu road carnage is coming at a time when Malawians are still trying to come to terms with the devastating heavy rains, resulting in floods that has killed 56 people.