Lawrence Enyoghasu, Elizabeth Ogunbamowo, Lagos And Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja
Two days after the catastrophe, Lagosians are still reeling from the destruction wrought by a raging fire triggered by a pipeline explosion at Ijegun community in the early hours of Thursday.
The conflagration had claimed at least two lives, leaving many injured and some still in critical conditions in the hospital with various degrees of burn. The inferno raged for hours on end, blotting the Lagos landscape with thick plume of smoke.
By the time the fire was put out 12 hours later at 4:30 pm, it had consumed almost everything along its path, including over 30 vehicles, several shops and buildings.
Saturday Sun visited the scene on Friday and found the streets in the locality––Isheri Oshun, Irede, Rufai Ashimin, Tijani Amolumate, Ajorin and Awe Lamuke streets––were covered in soot and ashes.
The catastrophe once more brought to the fore, the danger of pipeline fire disaster arising from vandalisation and illegal bunkering, a scourge plaguing the Ijegun community since the holocaust of 2008.
How the fire ravaged the community
The fire of that Black Thursday ignited from the burst pipeline close to a mechanic workshop not far from Haknims Oil and Gas Station by the canal bridge on Awe Lamuke Street. The spilt fuel had passed through two ways; the channel from the Mechanic flowed straight to the canal on the street, where the worst destruction had taken place.
The second fire raced through the gutter beside Ijegun Comprehensive High School and Ijegun Primary School and crossed over to Irede Road. The fire continued its destruction, gutting shops on the roadside by a green one-story building at No. 2 Isheri Oshun road.
Through the drain, the inflammable liquid brought fire to shops close to the gutter, especially those close to portions of the drain with wooden covering.
At Anjorin Street, the flame razed a container shop at the junction and broke the glasses of a bungalow at No. 1.
The flame passed Rufai Ashimi Street, sparing the shops, but razed four cars parked bumper to bumper on the street. The flowing fuel then joined the main flow on Awe Lamuke Street, where it wreaked havoc.
A neighbourhood in mourning
On Friday morning, Awe Lamuke Street and the adjoining streets all had a bleak outlook and the residents were counting their losses. Saturday Sun visited the family of Austin Japan at Awe Lamuke Street, where a woebegone woman was clearly in hysterics.
“Who will be like Japan for me?” she continued to yell both in Igbo and English language. Japan was the nickname of her husband whose real name is Austin.
Her sitting room was peopled with family members and friends, who in sad silence listened to her tale of woe. “I can’t believe that my husband is dead. He promised to take care of me in time of prosperity and poverty; now, he’s gone. He had plans to quit his bus-driving job once he has saved some money. He never saw himself as a bus driver,” the widow lamented.
On the same street, members of the family of another victim, Mr Ishaq, were also in a sober mood. Ishaq, Saturday Sun learnt, was the owner of a wagon vehicle that was completely burnt.
“We are praying for his survival. He is the rock on which this family stands,” said a fair-skinned man, who identified himself as Sherif, the brother of the deceased. “We don’t know how to go ahead in life without him.”
Losses and problems
As you go up and down the street, from one street to another, the air reverberates with lament and sorrow.
Mofelola Komolafe, an affected shop owner was seen rummaging in the rubble of her shop with her son, a shirtless boy with his black skin coated with charcoal and ash from the remains of his mother’s shop.
Komolafe told Saturday Sun: “I was sleeping peacefully in my house when I received a call at 3 am that there has been an inferno in Ijegun, but we were not sure of the direction of the flames, so we all assumed that it was a fuel station that caught fire, but by the time we got to this street, none of us could step into the street. The heat was unbearable. Everyone was running helter-skelter. Some people got injured in the process. It was much later we discovered that bunker activities led to the spillage of the oil, which later resulted in the fire. The spilt fuel followed the drainage to this street and you know once a spilt fuel caught fire, it would affect nearby buildings.”
She continued: “We got here by 3:30 am and part of my goods were saved by concerned persons who helped me fetched water to suppress the fire. Two residents, who were on their way to their office by 4 am, died instantly. Some residents were in their rooms when fire razed their buildings. At least, six people died. I’m sure others would have lost their lives or be on life support in the hospital. Some did not lose their lives, but they lost possession. I am an example. My business is not based on the cash I have, it was borrowed from the cooperative society I belong to and I must pay back despite what I have lost to this inferno.”
Continuing, she explained her calamity: “What I have left in this shop is not up to half the goods I lost. Now I’m in debt. Who do I hold responsible for my doom? I just stocked up four days ago with N50, 000 I borrowed, and I’ve lost extra goods worth N150, 000 to this fire outbreak. I can’t even start crying or thinking about the situation. If care is not taken, one would be down with depression and possibly die.”
She made a plea to government on two grounds.
“Firstly, tell the government to show us mercy. Many shop owners here borrowed money to sustain their businesses hoping to pay back at a later date. With this incident, paying back would be difficult and lenders of such money are not ready to listen to stories. Secondly, help us tell government to do something to this bunkering issue because the majority of the victims at the end of the day are innocent people.”
Okafor Edmond Chinemerem, an indigene of Imo State, echoed similar woe. “I came to Ijegun in August 2016, I sell provision, cosmetics and wines. I heard about this incident this morning around 7 pm when I received a call that my shop was burning. So I had to rush down here and I met this,” she said.
She, also, is now in debt.
“I don’t know what to do. I restocked about a week ago with about N300, 000 that is minus old capital of goods that run into millions,” she wailed.
In recent years, the Ijegun suburb has become synonymous with pipeline explosion and its associated misery. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), owners of the infrastructure, had reportedly conducted a pipeline clearance in the neighbourhood recently and evicted those doing business or living along the pipeline. The first phase of the clearance was carried out along the Ejigbo stretch of the pipeline after a petroleum tanker involved in bunkering operation fell on its side spilling its content. Residents, scared by the accident, had sent a distress call to the control room of the NNPC and an emergency team had promptly arrived to mop up the mess.
An Ejigbo resident, Joseph Agbo, told Saturday Sun the community live in fear. “The vandals don’t allow us to rest. Once they come for their illegal operation, we don’t sleep. After the last tanker spilll, the NNPC monitoring team started patrolling, which they did for a while and stop. On that day, spilt fuel flowed underneath the shops and on the walls of some houses,” Joseph narrated.
Also, Mr Boniface Nwankwoda, a foodstuff dealer in Idimu, narrated how officials of NNPC destroyed his shop in a bid to safeguard life and properties in Idimu.
“NNPC officials came here on the last Saturday of April this year after they gave us a 10-day notice. We were told that our shops were illegal structures erected on the pipe. They came around four years ago but they did not demolish any building. But this year, my shop was among those demolished and that affected my business because I lost a lot, as I was not able to move all my goods. Poor me, I had paid an advance rent of three years to the landlord and I had to borrow money for fresh rent to the new landlord.”
He, however, did not condemn the NNPC for demolishing the buildings “because it is actually wrong to erect any structure on a pipeline.”
He continued: “But we weren’t aware; the landlord had already built the shops beforetime, we only came here to rent, so we had no idea we were sitting on a pipeline.”
His lamentation: “We are the ones bearing the loss more.”
In the meantime, President Muhammadu Buhari in his message of condolence to the families who lost their loved ones in the inferno called on all Nigerians to avoid tampering with pipelines and sensitive installations across the country, admonishing that such interferences put many lives at risk.
Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, in a statement said Buhari also condoled the people and government of Lagos over the fire disaster that claimed lives and property. He prayed that God will accept the soul of the departed and comfort their families. The president charged security operatives to fish out those behind the tragedy and ensure that the culprits are brought to book.