By Nwabueze Okonkwo
ONITSHA— For an upward of five years now, auto crashes had consistently occurred at the sloppy Upper Iweka axis on the Onitsha end of Enugu/Onitsha expressway, with attendant high rate of casualties. The crashes usually occurred at quarterly or yearly intervals and in most cases, heavy duty vehicles fully loaded with goods usually developed brake failures and end up with disastrous consequences.
However, this particular incident of Sunday, May 31, 2015, appeared to have turned the most tragic among similar incidents in the previous years as the number of casualties ranged between seven and 18 as the case may be. But to the chagrin of all and sundry, this latest fuel tanker carnage claimed up to 70 lives at a stretch, according to the figures released on the spot by both the officials of the Nigerian Red Cross Society, NRCS, and the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC.
The NRCS and FRSC officials were among those who joined hands with the police and other security agencies in carrying out both rescue operations and evacuation of the deceased and injured ones to different hospitals and morgues for depositing and medical attention.
Although, the management of Onitsha General Hospital quoted its own casualty figure as only 43, eye-witnesses and survivors said the figure was even more than the 70. The Chief Consultant-In-Charge of Onitsha General Hospital, Dr. Mercy Ebelechukwu had stated that contrary to the 69 and 70 casualty figures quoted by voluntary agencies, the correct figure of the dead stood at 43, while only six were injured.
According to her, 22 corpses were brought to the General Hospital morgue on the fateful day, while 20 other corpses remained at Toronto hospital morgue, adding that out of the seven injured ones, one more died on the way to Anambra State University Teaching Hospital, Awka and the corpse was brought back to General Hospital morgue bringing the number of corpses at the General Hospital Morgue to 23.
She further explained that out of the 20 corpses deposited at Toronto Hospital morgue, 12 were moved to General Hospital morgue to bring the total figure now to 35, while the remaining eight were still in the Toronto morgue, adding that out of the remaining six injured ones at Toronto, one was transferred to Awka Teaching Hospital, apart from three other injured ones who were rushed to Menax private hospital, out of which one had been discharged.
She expressed the fear that the situation might lead to mass burial because most of the corpses were burnt beyond recognition and as a result, they had already started decompo-sing to the extent that if more time was wasted, there could be an out-break of epidemic, in spite of the chemical contents being poured on the corpses to curtail the odour.
The Chief Medical Director of Toronto Hospital, Onitsha, Dr. Emeka Eze, attributed the high death-toll during the fuel tanker incident to stampede.
Speaking when the leader of Progressives People’s Alliance, PPA, in the State, Chief Godwin Ezeemo, led a delegation of his party to the hospital to sympathize with victims hospitalized there, Dr. Eze added that there were still corpses, to be claimed by their relations which could not be easily identified.
Eze, who noted that state government had sent pathologists take samples of the dead, added that the prompt intervention of both the Federal and state governments when the incident occurred, showed that the present leaders had the interest of their people at heart.
He also attributed burns to the increase in the death-toll, adding, “we have isolated the victims. They would have died if not that we isolated them. We heat up the rooms where they are kept because they have no skin in them and feel cold.” Responding Ezeemo said he felt bad when he heard of the incident and resolved to come and sympathise with some of the survivors.
Extending his sympathy to the Obi of Onitsha, HRM Alfred Achebe at his palace, Ezeemo urged him to use his position to prevail on the authorities to help look for better locations for motor parks instead of having them along the Express way.
However, one of the survivors, Mrs. Virginia Ihezie, a newspaper vendor, trading under the name of Obura News Agency, told newsmen how one of the buses knocked down by the tanker trapped her on the ground. She said the bus held on her two laps and as she was shouting for help as people were running away from the scene.
According to her: “As the bus was holding me on the laps, I tried to pull myself out but I couldn’t. Rather, the more I struggle, the more blood was gushing out from the laps and when I saw a man running away and I begged him to come to my rescue, he simply told me that he could not lift up the bus alone and as I continued begging him to call others, he left me and fled the scene.
“As I continued crying and shouting the name of Jesus Christ, I became unconscious at a stage and was beclouded by some strange fellows dressed in snow white garments.I noticed that the fellows were angels of God sent by Jesus Christ to rescue me. At once I started hearing a voice telling me to pull out. As if the bus was being lifted up gradually, I began to pull myself out until I stood up and jumped the fence.”
Two minutes after I jumped the fence, bleeding profusely, I heard a very big bang as the tanker exploded and caught fire, while I ran from place to place in search of medical treatment. I went to Menax Hospital but was told that the doctor was not around.
However some of the nurses treated me and I went home. Ever since then, the medical personnel my husband engaged have been coming to my residential home to dress the wounds. Therefore, I must confess that I am a living testimony to that incident.
“Before that incident, I was in my news-stand and when I discovered that my GSM battery was low, I decided to go and look for where to recharge the battery but as I just stood up to go out, the incident occurred and I was trapped. So, when my fellow newspaper vendors were calling my number, my phone did not ring because of the low battery and they concluded that I was among those burnt by the fire.
“Then, they called one of my daughters who lives with her husband in far away Port Harcourt, Rivers State to inquire from her if I had a second phone number but the time they were calling my daughter co-incided with the time she was in a labour room in a hospital waiting to be delivered of a baby and as such, she was not responding to them effectively.
“So, by the time the news of my narrow escape was broken to her and her delivery was broken to me, we all sang praises to God. However, up till now, I have not seen my younger brother, Ifeanyi who was helping me in my news-stand and my conclusion is that he was among those burnt beyond recognition.”
Another witness, who identified himself as Evarist Anyanwu, declared: “I watched the fire ravaging one woman, popularly known as Mama Ejima (Twin’s Mother) and her husband, Papa Ejima and their twin children, adding that this type of disaster had ‘’repeated itself on an annual basis within that particular spot.”
One other witness, who simply identified himself as Nelson, attached to a popular transport company based in Onitsha, called on the state government to ban petrol tankers from plying the roads during the day to avoid future occurrence. He said that if the incident had occurred at night, there might be little or no casualty at all, adding that he would like to correct the impression that the tanker swooped on many vehicles in the park and killed all the passengers.
He stated that as an eye witness, “what actually happened was that the tanker driver lost control of the vehicle as a result of suspected brake failure, rammed into a bus carrying few passengers, killing few of them and trapping others, but when sympathizers thronged the scene and wanted to rescue the few passengers trapped on the bus, the liquid content now exploded and spread the fire on the sympathizers, the vendors and those reading newspapers at their news-stand and roasted them.”