By Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
“They’ve seen hell fire in death even when they are yet to be buried and we, as humans, don’t even know their fate in judgment by God. The fire didn’t have mercy on them at all as it burnt many to ashes.”
That was the voice of a lady identified as Ifeoma, who helped the reporter gain access to the scene of the fire that consumed over 300 corpses at the mortuary section of the Onitsha General Hospital, Anambra State, last Friday.
It was a gory sight that evoked empathy and pain. Different shapes and sizes of human bodies lying supine in different containers in their embalmed state inside the mortuary. Suddenly, fire came and ravaged the whole place, turning some to skeletons, while others looked like mannequins. Some were burnt completely with only the skulls and some bones left. Charred remains of human flesh smelt like abattoir fire where cow hides and skin are burnt for the production of ponmo (kanda).
Daily Sun was told that the morgue was not actually under the direct control of the government because it was contracted out to a private mortician. Though this was the first time such an incident happened in the hospital that is over 50 years old, it was not the first in the state. A similar accident happened barely two years ago at the morgue of the General Hospital in Enugwu-Ukwu, Njikoka Local Government Area on December 30, 2019. Curiously, the same outfit was said to be in charge of the Enugwu-Ukwu mortuary where more than 50 bodies were burnt beyond recognition.
More than 24 hours after the incident, when Daily Sun visited the scene on Saturday evening, some burnt trees within the mortuary premises were still emitting smoke.
General manager, Sun Medical Diagnostic Centre, Chinedu Osakwe, was the first person to arrive the scene when the morgue caught fire.
Osakwe, whose diagnostic centre shares a boundary with the mortuary, told the reporter that it was the smell and thick smoke that aroused their curiosity to check whether anything was burning that fateful afternoon.
He said the mortician in charge of the facility was not available at the time of the incident, while everywhere was scanty of people because many were still in the village, having gone home that weekend to beat the four-day sit-at-home in the South East because of the court case of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu.
Osakwe said: “It was around 2.30pm that the fire started from the back of the mortuary. We were inside the office when we noticed smoke coming in. I asked my staff whether they were burning anything but they said no. After some time, one of them who went outside came in and in a frantic voice told me that the mortuary was on fire. We rushed downstairs immediately and proceeded to the place.
“Lo and behold, the whole place was on fire. We picked all our fire extinguishers and also mixed some detergent with water but these couldn’t contain the enormity of the fire. It was a strong fire because formalin was packed inside the place. When the fire service people came, it was already late, most of the bodies had been burnt, though they contained the fire from spreading to other buildings.”
Mortician laments, wife faints at scene
The mortician in charge of the place, Emmanuel Onuigbo, said he was confused and did not even know where to start. He disclosed that his wife, who was nearby when the incident happened, fainted at the scene and was revived at the hospital.
Onuigbo, who said he has managed the mortuary at the General Hospital for almost 16 years without any ugly incident, recalled that he had finished preparing the remains of an Onitsha Agbalanze chief who was buried that day and left for Obosi to deliver another body when he got a call that something bad was happening in the facility.
“I ran back as fast as I could but met the whole place in a mess. I nearly jumped into the fire to die too but was rescued by those who were already gathered at the scene. How do I explain what happened to families who deposited bodies here, how do I face them?”
Onuigbo said at least 300 bodies in the morgue were consumed in the fire but about 58 of them were recent intakes with proper identification, which, according to him, he could properly identify even in their burnt state because he was the one who handled their placements.
He also claimed that at least 200 of the affected bodies were abandoned without proper identification, including some brought in by the police as unidentified accident victims and those killed during riots and similar unsettled cases. He disclosed that, among the burnt bodies were a policewoman, some inmates of Onitsha Correctional Centre and Onitsha indigenes.
Onuigbo lamented , before the incident, he had been calling some of the depositors to come and claim the bodies of their people there but they kept on delaying, until the worst happened. He also said he calculated his estimated loss in the incident to be about N10 million.
He said, that Friday evening and Saturday morning, Onitsha people collected about 12 remains of their people deposited in the morgue and buried them immediately without any customary burial rites or other formalities.
“There are some bodies here that have accumulated bills of about N1 million plus, and others within the range of N600,000 to N800,000, while some are within the range of N100,000 and below. The loss is about N10 million or more because all the people who have responded so far to collect their bodies of their relations don’t even talk of paying their accumulated bills anymore.
“I just pray that this impasse passes over me. If anything had happened to the body of the Onitsha Chief, which was collected that morning, I wouldn’t have known how to handle the situation because that one would have been a big case beyond me,” he said.
What caused the fire?
There are different versions as to what could have caused the fire. Some said that it was fire from a refuse dump in a nearby house that spread to the area and ignited the flammable materials in the mortuary. Another story claimed it was a spiritual revolt by ghosts of the dead inside the morgue.
Onuigbo is convinced that the fire was caused by burning refuse in the nearby compound. He also confirmed that seven gallons of chemical for preserving the dead were stored in the mortuary, which helped in stoking the fire because the products were highly inflammable
But a certain school of thought believes strongly that the fire was caused by some supernatural and cosmic powers as a form of revolt by ghosts.
One of the workers at the scene who simply identified himself as Okey alleged that about 10 bodies were displayed outside the mortuary premises in a mysterious manner a day before the fire.
“It was a mystery fire. I’m suspecting that some angry ghosts must have done this. A day before this incident, we came to work and discovered that no fewer than bodies were brought outside by unknown persons.
“My experience as a mortician shows that these bodies can be angry and act as if they are alive. They fight themselves here every night. We hear their noise.
“About this particular incident, I’m sure that some of them that were angry set that mortuary ablaze, because there is no way that mortuary can catch fire without these people (dead persons).
“What you should know is that any dead person who has not been officially buried and a funeral performed, his spirit hovers and acts like any of us living. They can be angry; they can be happy; they do anything you and I can do. Sometimes, we hear them sing choruses; sometimes they quarrel among themselves. They even cook. We see a lot of things here.
“Some of them who have overstayed here without being claimed by their relations act funny. I strongly believe those of them in that class must have done this,” he claimed.
Another dimension to the whole matter is the claim that somebody may have intentionally set the mortuary ablaze, having allegedly done something funny with some of the bodies deposited there.
Those following this line of argument said there should be proper investigation of the matter because similar a thing happened at the Enugwu-Ukwu General Hospital mortuary about three years ago yet all assurances by government to unravel the cause and masterminds and also rebuild the place did not yield any positive outcome.
Regardless, the director of Anambra State Fire Service, Martin Agbili, confirmed that the fire was from bush burning. He said the efforts of the firefighters saved the situation from spreading to surrounding buildings but noted though no life was lost, those who tried to put out the fire sustained some burns.
Relations of the dead grieve
While the reporter was at the scene, many relatives of the dead deposited in the morgue trooped to the area after receiving news of the incident from the mortician who called many of them on phone; just as some others read the viral social media reports.
An Onitsha indigene who came with the mortuary receipt of his deceased uncle, Peter, lamented the situation. His uncle’s body was in the morgue for over one year. He said his uncle died as a result of a land tussle, so, there were pending issues regarding his death, coupled with other members of the family who died before him that would have to be buried before him.
He said they were not ready to bury him even now because some of the issues have not been resolved, but with the situation on hand they have no option than to dig the ground and bury his remnants immediately.
Another client, Chukwuka Ikporo, from Ebonyi State, who deposited his brother’s corpse in the morgue, wept uncontrollably on disembarking from the tricycle that conveyed him to the premises.
He lamented that they were still preparing for the burial while also contemplating how to break the sad news of the death to their mother, only to behold another shocker that the body had been burnt: “How do I handle the situation? Can our mother withstand this double tragedy?”
Government orders mass burial of unclaimed bodies
Daily Sun reliably gathered that the Anambra State Commissioner for Health, through the Head of Administration of the General Hospital, Onitsha, has issued a directive that all those who deposited bodies in the morgue should come forthwith for identification and collection, while other unclaimed ones should be given a mass burial.