Lawrence Enyoghasu, Vera Wisdom-Bassey And Elizabeth Ogunbamowo
One week after the explosion that brought a massive destruction to the Lagos suburb of Abule Ado, those affected are still struggling to put their lives back in order. Everyone within a four-kilometre radius of the sources of the twin blasts––a gas processing plant and NNPC pipeline––suffered a varying degree of casualties, ranging from destruction of cars, homes and shops to bodily injuries and death. The big bang of March 15 had reverberated through Festac, Mile 2, and Ojo. The tremor was felt in far-flung areas including Ago, Isolo, Airport road, Ejigbo, Oshodi, Lawanson, Ijesha, Ajegunle and Badagry.
The explosion, which triggered a fire outbreak left a carnage that marked the axis as a disaster zone with no less than 50 houses destroyed and scores injured, dead or missing. In the wake of the disaster, the modestly bustling suburbia, once a boomtown turned into sorrow town with its landscape scarred like a war-torn territory.
During a recent tour of the area, Saturday Sun found hapless residents trying to make a sense out of what happened to them as they pick up the pieces of their lives.
Harrowing recounts of moment of impact
Accounts rendered by various eyewitnesses caught in the web of the disaster made it possible to narrow the mean time of the tragedy to the hour between 8 am and 9 am.
“At about 8 o’clock, my senior sister asked me to boil water,” recalled Sunday Onwuegbu, “but within seconds we perceived the smell of gas and I was scared that perhaps our gas cooker was leaking. That was the moment the blast took place, because a few seconds later, the stench became overpowering and we got to know it was coming from outside.”
Elsewhere, others––including students of Bethlehem Girls College who were in their chapel for their morning devotion––were in their places of worship observing the Sunday service that started by 8 am.
On that fateful day, Sir Longy Aworum, an Imo State indigene, was inside St. Perpetua Church, Ago, Isolo, when suddenly a big tremor shook the building to its very foundation and plaster of Paris cascaded over the congregation. “I thought the world has come to an end. It appeared the church was going to collapse brick by brick until I saw our reverend standing at the altar and we felt reassured,” he stated.
The St Perpetua Church was located some 15 kilometres away from the site of the explosion. Buildings in close proximity experienced a more frightening impact from the shockwaves.
Onabu Godson told Saturday Sun: “We were standing outside St Joseph Catholic Church, Agboju, when the force of the explosion lifted us off our feet and we landed on our buttocks. The church immediately collapsed. All the vehicles around us squeezed and their glasses shattered.”
At Watchman Church, Abule Ado, the impact of the blast was devastating. Pastor Louis Egwuanya, the branch pastor recalled: “We were in the service when it happened around 8:50am. The bang was so heavy that it lifted me off my seat. There was pandemonium, but I stood and calmed the congregation. Afterwards, I stepped outside to confirm what had happened.”
Continuing,he said: “The children were crying. We didn’t know what to do. Some were climbing the fence, but it was rigorous. We brought three ladders that were placed in three different positions. A young man brought a digger and we made holes in the fence. We also broke down the Lake View wall to allow vehicles to convey children to the hospitals because some of them could not walk.”
In his own recollection of what happened that tragic morning,the Shepherd-in-charge,Celestial Church of Christ, Ileri Oluwa Zonal Headquarters, Kehinde Oyerinde lamented that the blast completely wrecked his church.
He was however grateful that the church was spared the horror of human casualty because the Sunday service had not started at the time of the explosion.
“That morning, I came to the frontage of the church and saw smoke rising. There was no explosion yet at the time. I called on everyone around me and we started running in the opposite direction. By the time we got to that house, we heard the bang. I fell, but quickly got up and continued running.”
Oyerinde avowed that he heard two explosions. “One happened in the bush and the other happened far away from here,” he asserted.
Moment before the explosion
A few people saw the calamity coming, albeit, a split second too late. One of them was Jubril, a commercial motorcyclist who was conveying a passenger to the Watchman Church when he saw vapours escaping from the gas pipeline close to Bethlehem Girls College. The vapour, he ascertained, leaked from the site where a truck was parked.
“When I saw the cloud of gas, I didn’t tell the woman before I turned back, so she started complaining that I was going the wrong way. I got as far as a few metres from the bus stop when the pipeline exploded. The woman shouted: Jesus! It was at that point that I told her what I saw,” Jubril narrated.
Saturday Sun found a young man who had a short video recorded by his brother a few minutes before the explosion. The young man, Emma, claimed his brother was forced to stop his recording when the reek of gas became overpowering and sensing an impending disaster, he had ducked indoors for safety. “At first, we didn’t know why he ran inside but a few seconds later we heard the bang. After he came out of shock, he showed us the video,” Emma recounted.
The short video, captured in the last few seconds before the explosion, showed an effusion of gas into the environment.
Onyeka Okpara is another resident who had a split-second awareness before disaster struck. He was preparing to go to church when he perceived a strong stench of cooking gas.
“I ordered everyone in the house to put off their cooking gases,” he said. Unknown to him, they were moments away from an explosion.
“We were about leaving when the explosion occurred and the force of the blast threw everyone to the ground. “I had to get up and start picking the children from the gutter. That was when I saw the flame.”
While he and his family escaped with minor injuries, some of his tenants, especially those who lived upstairs were not so lucky, as their apartments were destroyed by the force of the blast.
The toll of the disaster
Bethlehem Girls College Abule Ado, which was closest to the source of the explosion, suffered the heaviest casualty. The school’s principal, Rev. Sr Henrietta Alokha, died trying to rescue some of her students trapped in collapsed buildings and from the inferno. Three bodies were recovered from the debris and taken to the mortuary. The death toll had increased in subsequent days.
One of the students of the school, Norah, recalling the harrowing moment told Saturday Sun the explosion occurred while they were worshipping inside the church chapel sometime after 8 am. In the wake of the deafening blast, terrified students scrambled out of the ruins, through broken walls, minutes before the building collapsed.
Kemi Asogbe described the bedlam at the school moments after the blast: “We were in the house down the road when we heard the noise. First, we ran to the Trade Fair complex where we were informed of the tragedy at St. Bethlehem School. Oh my God, we met a scary sight there. From afar, we could see students wailing for help. We moved to the back of the school and broke the Balogun fence so the students could escape. As they ran out, the building came down behind them. Those who did not move on time were trapped and injured by falling bricks. We then had to bring a ladder so others could climb over the fence to avoid them all being killed by the falling bricks.”
No one who lived within close proximity came out of the disaster unscathed. They were all affected one way or the other. Godson, one of those affected, detailed his loss: “I lost my uncle, Mr Festus Ose, whom we were preparing to go together to the Catholic Church at Agboju for the dedication of his fourth child; my father, too, was knocked against the wall by the impact. He has been hospitalized since.”
Samson Ebiso, who lived down the street, had feared for his uncle when he heard about the catastrophe. “He survived,” he said of his uncle, “but he is presently receiving treatment at the Navy Hospital. His wife suffered a serious burn, 80 per cent burn. She has not spoken since she was admitted.”
Honourable Ulsta Martins told Saturday Sun the calamity that befell him: “I am totally confused. I was at the bus stop when I heard the explosion and I started making calls to people I know, but it was early this morning I was informed that my cousin who lives in the area was affected. The first thing I saw when I got here is that his building has been completely brought down. Right now, bodies of my brother, his wife and their maid are lying in the morgue.”
Mrs Gloria Nwachukwu narrated how she escaped death by the whiskers. At the time of the explosion, she and her children were preparing for church and were subsequently trapped in the rubble that was once their home.
“Seeing that there was no way out, I began to shout for help until Good Samaritans heard our cries and came to extract me and my four children out of the collapsed building,” she narrated.
Sadly, her neighbour, the owner of Mende School, wasn’t so lucky. “The man and his wife, his son, who recently returned from America to prepare for his wedding, and their driver, all of them died inside their car as they made their way to the church.”
While Edwin Oranu escaped unscathed, his business took a direct hit.
“I was in my house when I heard the sound and I was wondering what it was, I never thought that this happened close to my shop. I got here and met my beer shop in ruins, all the bottles are broken, all the contents wasted.”
Counting his loss, he said, “I just restocked my shop last week with N300,000.”
Oranu, who estimated his loss to over one million naira, added: “The owner of this other shop beside me is a hairdresser. She is presently hospitalized. Her husband and family are there with her at LUTH. Since the past two days, she has not opened her eyes or talk. She was running towards her shop when she was caught in the blast.”
Dayspring David is one of those who suffered the loss of their home. The 69-year-old from Rivers State has no alternative other than to sleep in the wreckage of his home. “If you go out there, you will find a Mercedez Benz parked outside. It is mine. Now it is a wreck.”
He didn’t lose any member of his family, though, because “We were in the church in Festac,” he said.
“I did not have an inkling that the disaster happened in my own house. I thought it was an electrical problem, I got to know my house was affected when I returned home,” he stated.
Dayspring, an engineer and one of the oldest residents, avowed that he has experienced similar disruptions in the past, but none as devastating as this latest one. “The level of vibration is something else,” he averred.
A few had a brush with death, like Musa, who, caught in the thick of the explosion, was saved by a stroke of luck. His poignant story was not about himself; it was about Monday, his co-worker, who was killed by the sound of the blast.
According to him Monday had been complaining of chest pain for a while. “He asked me to help him get a drug. I was on my way to the pharmacy when the explosion happened. I doubled back and ran as fast as my legs could carry me. By the time I got to our workshop, Monday was already dead,” he narrated.
His colleagues on the block asserted that it was the force of the sound that killed Monday, who suffered no injuries whatsoever.
Another casualty listed was a man identified as Obi, the Vice-Chairman of the Resident Association.
Of him, Victor Nwankwo said: “He was always giving me jobs to do in terms of building and construction. He has houses and landed property in Ikorodu, Ajegunle and here in Abule Ado. I can’t believe he is gone.”
Slow return to life
A resident who preferred to remain anonymous alleged some unscrupulous persons had exploited the misfortune of others.
How? His house was looted within 24 hours of the incident, he claimed.
“They came in and took my television, laptop and the phone belonging to a reverend father who slept here, but they returned the phone this morning,” he said. The pot of soup his wife brought out of the refrigerator was also poached while their attention was engaged elsewhere, he said.
At Cele Kehinde Street, one of the residents, Kenneth Chinweike stood forlornly trying to figure how to restart his life. Before him was the building where he lived, now partly collapsed, its roof torn and windows broken.
The street was deserted. Many of the occupants of affected buildings had relocated. Chinweike had nowhere else to go.
“My landlord had already ordered that things be put in order. The roof is already being repaired, other things will soon be fixed,” he said.
Other residents, like Mrs Winifred Uche, are trying to figure how best to repair their affected properties. Uche has to repair her shop, located within the Trade Fair market, as well as her house, which was partially damaged. Other repairs before her include her children’s flat, her two-day-old generator and her newly purchased vehicle.
In the case of Pastor Egwuanya of Watchman Church, the problem before him is the leviathan of finding alternative accommodation for members of his flock whose homes are affected. “As I speak to you, many of my members are homeless, but the other half has volunteered to shelter them for a while,” he stated.
The clergyman urged the government to do more about the situation. “Since development started coming to the area, the government has failed to put things in order. This area was formerly a swamp, but now it has changed. The government has refused to remove or update some of the things it has buried in the ground,” he articulated.
Oyerinde, the Shepherd-in-charge of the Celestial Church conceded that the church has a new cross to bear now. Wrecked beyond recognition, the church requires at least two million naira to put it back in shape, he mused.