Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
THE car was still burning when they arrived, their path past the bridge had been blocked by a mass of people who had already gathered at the scene of the accident, and life was slowly being sucked out of the trapped individuals in that fireball in the most gruesome of fashion.
For a number of minutes, the brave first responders had tried, but failed, to pluck those inside the burning car from this fiery fireball that was destroying the vehicle and, its occupants, and in the end, all they could do was watch helplessly from a distance as fate took its cruel course.
The inevitability of the fate of those trapped inside the burning car, their slow and painful death in that raging inferno, too much to bear for those who were both physical witnesses, and psychological victims, as they could only watch, a tear drop here, a chorus of grieving people there, shock in everyone’s eyes.
The darkness failing to hide the disbelief, the horror, the unfolding disaster, every minute a cruel confirmation of the inevitable – the agonising death of the five people who had been travelling in that car, on this ill-fated journey home, a trip cut short in such tragic fashion.
Amid that unfolding tragedy, some tales of bravery were emerging – someone had bravely confronted the fireball and tried to pull out one of the occupants but could only succeed in pulling out the green jersey the person in that burning car had been wearing.
That jersey belonged to one of three CAPS United players and, for the Green Machine players who had been doubting the shocking reality of what had just transpired, too shocked to believe this was their horror show, too traumatised to concede this had happened to them, it provided the confirmation that their colleagues were in that burning wreckage.
The date was March 13, 2004, the Green Machine were on their way home after an assignment in Bulawayo, the striking irony of it all being that this was the beginning of a journey which, at the end of the season, would see them being crowned champions for the first time in eight years.
An adventure, in which Makepekepe would complete the entire season, unbeaten in the league away from home, under the guidance of their coach Charles Mhlauri who, as fate would have it, returned home, for the first time since relocating to the United States 11 years ago, this week.
A journey the Green Machine would complete without Blessing Makunike, Shingi Arlon and Gary Mashoko, the trio who, together with two fans, perished in that car crash.
Wednesday marked the 15th anniversary of that tragedy — the single biggest loss of life, among high-profile Zimbabwean footballers, in a road accident in the country.
For 15 years, Cephas Chimedza, had not gathered the strength to tell his story, growing up in the shadow of that tragedy, deprived of the company of teammates he was just beginning to know, after he had joined the Green Machine at the beginning of that year.
But, this week, in a conversation that started on Thursday and spilled into the early hours of yesterday, he opened his heart about the events that night from his base in Belgium.
And, it’s a heart-wrenching tale.’
‘’On that fateful day, there was a Thomas Mapfumo gig in Harare,’’ Chimedza told The Saturday Herald. ‘’Gary was still recovering from his injury but came to watch the match and had plans, together with Yogo (Makunike) and Shingi, plus the two supporters, to attend the gig.
‘’After the match, Gary was nowhere to be found and Yogo and Shingi were distraught during that time in the team bus, thinking Gary had betrayed them.
‘’Just as we were getting out of Bulawayo’, the car in which Gary and two other guys were travelling, overtook us and signaled for our bus to stop. Yogo and Shingi hugged everyone on the bus and went into the car.
‘’Their car was always within our range. They would always stop somewhere, and we passed them, then they would overtake and always hoot and stuff like that and this happened for something like four times.’’’
Then, at the Hunyani River bridge, everything came to a stop.
‘’We were told that we can’t go through because of an accident ahead. We could see a car burning and we were told we could only pass after all has been cleared,’’ said Chimedza.
‘’We got out of the bus walked to the scene but never realised it was the car (in which their teammates had been travelling) until one guy, who tried to pull out the people from the car, came to us and said there were people who were still alive in the back of the car.
‘’And he told us when they tried to pull them out, before the fire spread to their part of the car, they managed to pull out only a jacket and its colour was like the ones which we were wearing.
‘’That’s when panic crept in, we were all on our phones trying to call our three teammates but all the time the calls were going to voicemail.
‘’The worst part came when we finally realised it was them when the fire brigade took the bodies from the car. We saw everything — our friends and teammates who had been burnt beyond recognition, it was a like a scene from a horror movie.’’
Chimedza remembers calling his mother.
‘’I just remember talking to my mother on the phone, telling her the news and immediately she started crying, asking what had happened to my brother Elton,’’ he said.
‘’She said that’s how people break tragic news, they say other things first before delivering the truth. I gave Elton the phone to talk to her and, from there, it was just a blackout, you go in your own direction, trying to make sense of everything.
‘’It was on the scene when we cried a lot, a few players had to be helped to get back onto the bus. It was total silence until we got to Town House and we were ordered to meet there again in a few hours to go to visit the families of our departed teammates.
‘’Yogo had just returned from Yugoslavia and wasn’t even involved in pre -season. He had that aura of a big star but never acted like one. He wasn’t our captain but you could see he was a leader.
‘’Gary, I never played with him but I had interacted with him before, because of my brother and when I joined CAPS, he always said ‘Mboma, when I’m back that’s the end of you.’ They were very good guys, always joking. ‘’As for Shingi, I can’t say much, he was quiet, never one to show his true colours around people.’’