By Jet Stanley Madu
Time there was when Ben Johnson used to be the world’s fastest runner, now it is Usain Bolt, an unbeatable world record he has maintained for many years. Last Wednesday, when ‘Bakassi’ Hostel, the female living quarters of Yaba College of Technology became engulfed in inferno following electricity spark caused by power surge that is still a focus of investigation, many of the students said to number over 200, tried to beat even Bolt, in the ensuing panic and stampede.
But in their case, destination was not an issue; running, in their bid to escape for dear lives, was. Destination would take care of itself. Caught unprepared, some of the students who were rudely woken up from their sleep by raging fire and sparking wires, rushed out of the hostel, stark naked, before coming back to their senses. It was like a scene pulled out of Obi Egbuna’s play, The Anthill, in which the Queens’ mother ran out from the bathroom, naked, following the pulling of the public fire alarm by some mischievous black boys in London.
One of the students told The Sun Education that the fire seemed to have put the affected students in utter confusion and thus making them to forget that they had nothing on their bare bodies as they rushed through a maze of equally confused fellow students trying to save their own skin too: it was a case of everyone to herself, God for us all.
Some students ran out naked
One of the students, Sarah (she refused to reveal her surname) who sustained injuries on her left leg, covered with bandage, was too weak to talk to this reporter. Clothed in a very skimpy, rumpled old dress, allegedly provided by a Good Samaritan, she looked distraught and devastated in company of her elder sister, as she searched for an ideal place to change into better clothing.
This reporter tried to follow them but the obviously irritated girl blurted out: “Please, stop following me about. I’m a Mass Communications student but I can’t talk with you now. You can see that I have a wound on my leg. I’m feeling the pain. And I need a place where I can change my clothes. Look at what I’m wearing.”
A student who shared her experience after Sarah had gone to have a change of clothes thanked God that nobody died. “That morning, many of my fellow female Bakassians ran out naked. I think some of them were still sleeping, when they were woken up by shouts of ‘fire’ ‘fire’ and ‘help’ ‘help’ and ran out, forgetting they had nothing on them.
“In some cases, some of our male colleagues pulled off their shirts and gave to the affected girls to put on. Some female students of other hostels also ran and got dresses for others who had none to wear.”
College officials also affected
Students were not the only one whose normal lifestyle was disrupted by the fire incident. Dr. Charles Oni, the Public Relations Officer of the college was also affected by the development. As at 1pm on that Wednesday, he was yet to have his bath since morning as he was busy attending to public relations situations that cropped up within the day.
Necessity they say is the mother of invention. Oni revealed he had a suit kept in his office always. And when occasion demands, it simply comes in handy. But then, smart and corporate as he looked, the pair of slippers he wore Wednesday sold him out. “I’ve not had my bath today,” he told The Sun Education. “I came here in bathroom slippers. Usually, I have this suit here. So for a day like this, I put it on in case there is going to be a television interview”.
The first news on the YabaTech hostel fire came from postings on social media. Some of the reports said that students set the hostel ablaze. Others said that the fire had claimed lives with various links posting conflicting figures of casualties.
The dire accommodation situation at Yabatech
“But for the timely intervention of God Almighty, we don’t know what would have become of these girls”, a male student who had rushed in to ascertain the safety of his girlfriend said. The fire razed about 27 of the hostel rooms. Investigation by The Sun Education shows that legitimate students in each room house other students as squatters thereby bringing the number to, sometimes, 10 – 15 per room. It was further gathered that squatters could exceed lawful allotees.
Speaking on the arrangement being made to accommodate the affected students as a result of the fire incident, Dr. Oni, noted that the redistribution that is being made is strictly for those who were lawfully given accommodation. “I have been a student, and stayed in hostel for years,” he said. “My first inroad into institution of higher learning was in 1985 when I gained admission to study Mass Communications at the University of Lagos. Even me, that year, I had a squatter. Even then accommodation in the hostels weren’t stiff as it is now.”
He hinted at the fact that some steps would be taken to check over-squatting, in order to minimize risks during crisis. “They say that when people are of like minds, they compromise with themselves,” he said. “And they are compassionate with themselves. Students usually sympathise or empathise with those who do not have accommodation. Accommodation is so tight that sometimes some students sleep in the classrooms. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Even myself, I do go round. And we know some people have used that against us.”
Thanking God for mercies
A HND 2 male student who spoke with The Sun Education but who did not want his name mentioned in print also thanked God that the fire did not happen in the middle of the night and at the time students used to sleep in classrooms. The school authorities, he said, had ordered security men to chase out students from classrooms after nine o’clock in the night.
“But the rooms are hardly enough to take all the students,” he said. “They are overcrowded. But the girl’s hostels are worse. You may find 14 – 15 of them in one room. And the rooms are not large. The males have like six, seven in a room. I don’t know how they will handle this.”
Talking about the cause of the fire spread, aside kerosene reported to be stored and sold in the hostel, the PRO identifies foams as other items that boosted the power of the fire. “There were foam materials inside the hostels, and we know that foam is a combustible element, and with the slight Harmattan we’ve witnessed in the last few days, the fire spread so quickly. But thank God for the intervention of the fire service which actually doused the terrible ruin that would have been occasioned by the accident.”
Counting the losses
Mrs. Adejoke Bakard who operates a business centre near the hostel said that the fire consumed computer Central Processing Units (CPUs) and monitors, gadgets, printing papers, photo copying machines, laptops, and other goods belonging to her and other operators of business centres around the hostel for the simple reason that nobody saw the fire coming, nobody was there to rescue anything when it started as it was too early in the day.
And by the time the news got to them it was too late for anybody to salvage anything as none of them lived within a walking distance of their businesses. By the time they arrived the scene the raging fire had already gotten out of hand so much that nobody in his or her right senses dare go near as to see what can be saved. That was how many people came to lose properties worth millions of naira. For many it turned out to be a very big, and in some cases, irreplaceable and irreparable loss, in a downward economy such as we are going through at the moment.
One of the students who lost her belongings including her clothes, shoes, handbag, laptop and junk drive bearing the soft copy of her work is however grateful that although the fire did not spare the hard copy of her academic research work, she has a soft copy of it in her email box.
“I had my laptop, my phones and flash drive in my room,” she said. “No one knew that a thing like this would happen. But I had my project saved in my email box. I did the typing myself. So, I’m hopeful that I’m going to retrieve it. But, what I’m not sure of is whether I saved all or part of it.”