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Garbon Air crash: Zambia’s darkest day

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The ill-fated Zambian Airforce DHC-5D Buffalo took off from Lusaka Airport approximately six hours late, reported Ponga Liwewe for Africa Soccer Magazine in 1993.

Originally scheduled to have departed Lusaka on the morning of the April 27, there had been a delay as officials from the Foreign Ministry sought to obtain flight clearance on the scheduled route. As with most military flights, this was proving an obstacle and the pilots were advised to await confirmation from the Ministry before taking off.

With permission duly granted, flight No. AF 319, call-sign AFZ 502, made a perfect lift-off and began the first leg to Brazzaville, the capital city of Congo.

On board were 18 members of the Zambian national football squad, in good heart after taking the lead in their African Cup of Nations qualifying group by thrashing Mauritius 3-0 in Port Louis two days earlier. They were on their way to Dakar for their first World Cup second-round qualifier against Senegal.

European-based professionals Kalusha and Johnson Bwalya and Charles Musonda were not on board, the whole of the rest of the squad was there, along with the team coaches and doctor, and top football administrators.

Five hours later the plane arrived in Brazzaville for the first technical and refueling stop. At this point, unofficial sources say its main engine showed the first signs of trouble.
With its tanks full replenished, the Buffalo took off again, on the two-hour stretch to the Gabonese capital, Libreville. The scheduled 30-minute stop there was extended as further technical checks were carried out.

But a little before 11.00 pm, local time, the plane left again for Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, where the players were due to spend the rest of the night. In the morning, having rested and refueled the plane, they were to have made the remaining five and a half hour flight to Dakar, for their match against the Senegalese Lions.

Just minutes after Colonel Fenton Mhone took off from Libreville, however, the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean with the loss of all 30 passengers and crew on board. The Gabonese authorities almost immediately launched a rescue operation, but within a few hours it had become painfully obvious that nobody had survived.

Meanwhile, on the morning of April 28, the first news began to filter into the Zambian capital. By mid-morning there was still no official announcement but small clusters of people huddled around any available radio and hordes of people were streaming in and out of Football Association of Zambia [FAZ] headquarters.

The first official announcement came at lunch time on the main news. On the streets of the capital and throughout the country people wept openly; an air of disbelief and shock hung over the whole country as business came to an abrupt halt.

A government spokesman announced that President Frederick Chiluba was cutting short his tour or East African states and returning home as soon as possible. Within hours of his arrival, the President appeared live on both radio and television. He announced a one-week period of national mourning, the setting up of a national trust fund and that the deceased would have a state funeral as they had died on national duty.

The FAZ executive was also holding an emergency meeting. A decision would have to be made as to whether Zambia would pull out of the African Cup of Nations and World Cup competitions or go ahead but at a later stage.

A high level delegation was hurriedly assembled and dispatched to Gabon. Led by Foreign Minister Vernon Mwaanga and Sports Minister Dipak Patel, it also included top Air Force and medical personnel to assist in the investigation and to bring home the corpses. Within 72 hours they announced the recovery of all 30 bodies from the ocean and were on their way home.

With the initial shock passed, questions began to be asked. Why had the team been allocated a military aircraft and not used a commercial flight? How safe was the aircraft on such a long route, being primarily a short haul transport? Had not the players complained in the past about having to use such an aircraft? As expected, the official version said one thing while other sources said another.

The aircraft in question had been purchased in 1976. Meanwhile, enquiries in Lusaka reveal that a number of similar planes had been involved in air crashes in the past.

• In July 1982 three pilots died when their aircraft went down at Lusaka International Airport after an engine failure
• In July 1984 a Buffalo on a training exercise crashed with the loss of one pilot.
• In February 1990, 28 people died when a Buffalo on a flight from Mbala in northern Zambia to Lusaka went down with total loss of life.

On May 2 the Zambia Airways DC 8 returned from Gabon carrying the bodies of the dead. The flight had carried 18 players, the two team coaches, the team doctor, a deputy permanent secretary from the sports ministry, two FA representatives, one journalist and five crew members.

Thousands of Zambians made the journey to Lusaka International Airports and thousands more lined the 25 km route from the airport to the Independence Stadium, where the bodies were to lie in state overnight. At the stadium itself, a capacity crowd of 35,000 waited to receive the bodies of their dead heroes.

There were emotional scenes as people broke down and wept in their thousands. Throughout the night they clung together in clusters, fighting off the bitter cold but determined to stay the night with the young men who had brought them so much joy in this very arena.

The state funeral was held the next day, led by President Chiluba and his entire cabinet, foreign dignitaries and thousands more mourners pouring in from all over the country. The service ran for seven hours. The coffins were laid to rest at the northern end of the stadium, at a site prepared to remind Zambians forever of the young heroes who died in the service of the nation.

After emergency consultations, the President announced that Zambia would continue to participate in the two continental tournaments. The FA meanwhile moved quickly to appoint a panel of 12 coaches from both the northern and southern regions of the country to select 60 players and come up with a final squad of 22 to take over the baton.

Former Power Dynamos coach Fred Mwila was allowed to terminate his contract with the Botswana FA, where he was currently coaching, after FAZ President Winston Gumboh flew into Botswana to negotiate his release. Offers of help poured in, including one from Copenhagen, which announced that it would pay for intensive training in Denmark.

The future of Zambian football remains uncertain. But the names of the departed will never be forgotten: they will never ever walk alone.

Article republished to commemorate the soccer legends.

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