Exactly twenty years after Zambia plunged into one of its darkest days in history, memories of what was the best collection of soccer talent in the country are still as fresh as yesterday in honour of 30 gallant players, coaches, officials and crew members that perished off the coast of Gabon enroute to a US ’94 World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar.
That fateful night has long remained in the memories not only of their families but those of the entire Zambia and the football fraternity world over.
The military plane was carrying a 30 member crew, 18 of whom were players, and just after midnight following a refueling stop-over in Libreville, the plane blew off mid-air and the story of the Gabon air disaster was scripted.
No one survived. The entire story has never been told. But partial details of the report released by government suggest the plane was defective although speculation that the military plane, carrying civilians on that night, was brought down because it was flying at an awkward time in a volatile Gabon have not been dismissed.
An eye witness who was only captured once on television and never to be heard of again had explained that he saw a big fire – suggesting an explosion in the air – when the plane came down to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
That account was as close as Zambia could get to the raw explanation of events of that night and the rest has been through official announcements released in piecemeal. Families have cried out for the official report but their appeals and plea one year after the other of commemoration has fallen on deaf ears.
Back to the 20th anniversary of the commemorations, that report will not be available but families will converge at the Independence Stadium Heroes Acre for the official ceremony that will be preceded by an international friendly involving Zimbabwe.
Again, these 18 players Wisdom ‘Wizzy’ Chansa, Eston ‘Yellowman’ Mulenga, Richard Mwanza, Derby Makinka, Timothy ‘Teacher’ Mwitwa, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Efford David Chabala, Samuel Chomba, Kelvin ‘Malaza’ Mutale, Godfrey Kangwa, Moses Masuwa, Patrick ‘Bomber’ Banda, Numba Mwila, Winter Mumba, Kenani Simambe, Robert Watyakeni and Moses Chikwalakwala will be remembered.
Their coaches Godfrey ‘Ucar’ Chitalu and his assistant coach Alex ‘Computer’ Chola also hold a dear place in the heart of many Zambian. Chitalu is Zambia’s goal-scoring record holder for his incredible 107 goals in one season.
Others that were consumed in the crash included the respected soccer administrator FAZ president Michael Mwape, his committee member Wilson Sakala. Team physician Dr Wilson Mtonga, Ministry of Sport official Nelson Zimba, journalist Joseph Salim were also aboard the DHC-5D Buffalo plane.
Members of that crew serving the Zambia Air Force (ZAF) included Colonel Fenton Mhone, Lt. Col. Victor Mubanga, Col. James Sachika and Warrant Officer E Nambote will also be remembered.
Veteran Zambian soccer commentator and perhaps the most celebrated sports voice on radio Dennis Liwewe was due to make the trip but arrived at the airport moments after that same plane had taken off.
At the time a British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent, Liwewe was among the first people to receive the news of that fateful day when, according to his account, news about the disaster was communicated to him by Martin Davis – the former sports editor at the London office – at around 05:00 am.
When the news sunk in, Liwewe could not hold. His hypertension shot up. He collapsed and was admitted to the University Teaching Hospital – Zambia’s biggest referral medical centre.
Second Republican president Frederick Chiluba recommended Liwewe be evacuated and immediately he was taken to South Africa’s Morningside Hospital in Johannesburg where he spent 5 days recuperating.
Apart from the families, Liwewew has over the years, remained a central figure to the Gabon air disaster story. On every anniversary of the Gabon air disaster, Liwewe is the most prominent single individual source across all media houses.
At the time of the disaster, he was 57 and very active in the sports world. And now he is 77 but has resigned from active commentary. He is still greatly respected for his work as a soccer commentator.
“For me knowing the players and the officials, I knew the players when they were starting their football career and when the news came, I felt like I have lost my own biological children,” he said in a recent interview with the Times of Zambia.
Liwewe says losing players and officials in that tragic accident was the worst experience of his life and his prayer is that “no such type of disaster should ever happen again.”
That team was one of the finest collection of talent Zambia had ever assembled. With the exception of Kalusha Bwalya, now FAZ president, and Charles Musonda, both based in Europe at the time, Zambia had lost some of its best footballers to have ever graced the local stage.
They went to the 1988 Seoul Olympics and produced stellar performances beating Italy, among the giants, 4-0 in a match Kalusha scored three goals.
The KK 11, as they were called after first Republican president Kenneth Kaunda, finished third at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1990, and had recorded first- and third-placed finishes at the two previous CECAFA Cups.
Majority of the players in the team featured for local giants such as Nkana and Power Dynamos. During that period, Nkana reached the final of the African Champions’ Cup – a precursor to the CAF Champions League – in 1990, while Power Dynamos won the African Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991.
There was hope Zambia was on the verge of making a maiden appearance at the World Cup in 1994. That team had won their first-phase pool to move into the final round of African Zone qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. It was never to be. The dream ended on the shores of Libreville with only their remains ferried back to Lusaka for burial.
While Zambians still crave for a first World Cup appearance, Libreville became a fitting scene recently. It may not have brought back the 1993 heroes but it produced the 2012 heroes when it moved from the scene of Zambia’s greatest football tragedy to the scene of greatest triumph as Chipolopolo hoisted the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in history. That conquest was, naturally, dedicated to the 30 people who lost their lives on 28 April 1993 – a disaster that spurned this tear-jerking tale.