For Christian faithful, who worship on the first day of the week, Sunday is a holy day. According to the bible account of the resurrection of Christ, Sunday became very significant in the history of the Church, hence, its description as a holy day to worship.
It was on this holy day, a week ago, that the devil chose to visit the residents of Abule-Ado, a sleepy community in Amuwo-Odofin Local Government Area of Lagos State, leaving behind tears, blood and deep-seated pain.
The effect of the havoc he wreaked in the area on that day and the consequent scary scars will remain indelible in some families. The magnitude of losses varies from one individual or one family to another.
Around 9 a.m. last Wednesday, three days after what could pass off as a mini Armageddon, our correspondent visited the scene of a deadly gas explosion that had rocked Abule-Ado to see the extent of rescue work and how the survivors were picking the pieces of their lives.
Grief and agony were still palpable, as could be easily read from people’s mien. Some walked slowly and melancholically; some were simply irritable, and some others were seen just soliloquizing. These captured their bad mood.
Our reporter met on ground, what seemed a reminiscence of the account recorded in Jeremiah 31:15 (himself being a weeping prophet): “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Today, in Abule-Ado, there are many Rachels on account of the enormous calamity that visited the community.
“I will curse you now; I’m a reverend. You cannot snap me while I’m trying to get my brother’s things,” a visibly angry man unleashed his venom on the reporter who wanted to get him on camera.
“I have been crying since Monday; here I am trying to get his things. You cannot snap me while I’m crying,” he repeatedly said, like he was talking to a deaf man.
The expression of grief above captures some of the feelings of those who either lost their loved ones; their buildings/accommodation, businesses or other valuable items that were precious to them.
The general scene was one of ruin, devastation and loss. The streets now have buildings barely standing with shattered roofs, windows and walls. The roads within the estate were overtaken with jetsam, leaving little room for people to walk through collapsed structures on a single file as they shook their heads in complete shock to what is now left of a once fine estate in Abule Ado.
The air itself was reeking of fumes—a residue of the gas explosion—strong enough to destabilise one’s health; hence, Federal and State officials within the area wore nose masks while excavating the rubble in search of possible trapped victims. Many others used handkerchiefs to cover their nostrils.
The man, who roughly spoke to the reporter, was at the scene trying to salvage the remains of his brother’s belongings from the rubble. A moment before he roughly addressed the reporter, he was on the phone, talking to someone at the other end and holding back tears.
He was visibly not in the mood to talk much about huge losses suffered by the family as the reporter was to gather later.
“You can go to the front. He lost his five jeeps,” he said, sobbing.
BDSUNDAY later found out that his brother, a prominent man in the community, known as Obi Trecko, described as a wealthy man who had done so much for the community, was killed in the incident. According to an eyewitness, he died in the blast alongside his wife, second son and his house girl. He lost a number of buildings, including a private school run by the wife. It was also gathered that the son was to wed in April.
As observed, on the part of the residents, four days after the unprecedented explosion, victims are still counting their losses and receiving sympathisers.
One of such is Emmanuel Umeh, chairman of the Catholic Men Organisation of Saint Joseph Catholic Church Abule-Ado, and also one of the elders in the community.
Dressed in borrowed shirt and trousers, Umeh was talking to some members of his church association on an inspection tour to his demolished house located at 23 Gani Adams Street, Abule-Ado.
He explained to the reporter that he was still in church when he heard the explosion; he had urged other members to go on with the service thinking it was a minor occurrence. He then later went on to help evacuate girls from the Bethlehem College (which was hard hit by the explosion) when things escalated.
According to him, while on the rescue mission, the fire had started consuming the house in front of his, and owing to the lateness of the fire service arriving at the scene, he watched in consternation as the fire invaded his own house.
“The fire entered through the gutter; it went down and through it, entered my house,” he said, adding that by the time they (fire service) came with water, the young man living next to him had died while trying to run from the explosion.
“It was when the fire service came they discovered the body. I told them that his wife could still be inside; so, they went inside and brought out the pregnant wife’s body, and the sister whose body had been dismembered,” he said.
Umeh told BDSUNDAY that he lost over N150million worth of property and goods. The house he was living in—a duplex, was built and “equipped with around N68million,” he said.
“The other duplex my wife is using as saloon and fashion designing industry was built with N5 million and I equipped it with N30million. My SUV is damaged, my Camry car is damaged. I don’t have a car now.
“So, somebody just lent me the car I’m using. If I quantify what I’ve lost, it’s over N150 million. But I’m not saying government should come and pay me N150million but they should come with a relief package,” he added.
Though, currently squatting with his children, he asked for government aid through relief materials.
“What we are saying in earnest is that we need assistance here. As I am sitting down here, whatever I am wearing here is borrowed, people have been coming to give me clothes and where I’m staying in Satellite Town is somebody’s house; he gave me a room self-contained, I and my four children and he’s feeding us,” Umeh explained with pain.
Also counting his losses is Pascal Aigbogun (a staff of a newspaper organisation in Lagos), who suffered the death of his uncle, Festus Ose, among other valuables. On the day of visit to the site, Aigbogun, like others, was rummaging through the flotsam for something worth salvaging.
Now collapsed, his uncle’s building had a shop where they sold drinks in crates and cartons, managed by his wife, Obianuju. So, much of the salvaging he was found doing at the time was lifting crates from under the rubbles.
The spot where he was removing things from is close to the house of Obi Trecko (mentioned earlier), indicating that Ose and Trecko (both dead) could have known each other prior to the catastrophe.
“That day, unfortunately, was supposed to be his (Ose) child’s dedication,” he said. “He left behind his wife and four young children. He was the landlord of number 1, Basil Street, and he died opposite the girls’ school which was also badly affected.”
Aigbogun wants the Federal Government to make sure that people who were badly affected are duly, rationally and timely compensated.
“It does not make sense that these people who have suffered these great losses either do not get compensated in a way or do not get what they are supposed to get on time. A lot of them had all their investments in the place.”
Having lost their breadwinner, their father, husband, home, and business, Obianuju and her four children are currently being housed in their church’s parish.
“It’s so unimaginable, it’s crazy. Where do you begin from? How do you lose your house, business, and loved one on the same day? It’s painful!
“I’ll like to plead with well-meaning Nigerians, the federal and state governments, whoever, on behalf of the family, we’d like to plead, let the whole people help us with prayers and support,” he told the journalist.
Losing a storey building of six rooms and a parlour both up and down, and four shops could make one completely speechless.
Such was the state of Joseph Ojukwu who sat in his demolished shop receiving pity from his kith and kin in a red-like vest and a wrapper on his waist, looking morose as he takes intermittent gazes at the skeletal structure in front of him—his house.
“I can’t talk now. I’ve been talking since,” he said, and passed me on to his brother, Felix Essom, a businessman and community member in Satellite.
“It’s only the government and the people that will do the investigation that will know what really happened. They say it’s a pipeline explosion, but we’ve never seen this type of explosion before,” he said, explaining what had happened the day of the incident.
He continues: “The house—six rooms and parlour up and down, and his four shops got damaged completely. You know how much it costs now to do this type of work? Up to N45million. So, government should help us.
“The government knows what to do. If you’re living in a house and all of a sudden, the house gets demolished by bomb, it is the responsibility of the government to provide shelter. We want government to come to our aid. Even though they can’t build it the way it was before, let them come and build so that people will see where they can put their heads.”
How it happened
Whether by divine providence or sheer luck, Okuanolu Precious Nkiruka’s 11-year-old daughter, one of the students of Bethlehem Girls College, survived the blast.
Okuanolu, from Anambra State, told our reporter that while she was getting ready for church service that morning, “I live in Ago Palace, Okota. I heard the sound of the blast, shattering my windows all the way to Ago, from Abule-Ado.”
According to her, 10 minutes later, she received a phone call from her daughter about the blast and she rushed to the school to pick her up.
“By the time I arrived there, there was no entrance, I had to go and turn towards Trade Fair, where they were taken to a safe place—one of the parishes inside Trade Fair, that’s where I went to pick her and to God be glory she was okay just that she had minor injuries but she’s okay.
“She collected a phone from one of the parents and called. I thank God she was wise enough to pick a phone and call,” she said.
Like numerous eyewitness accounts, Okuanolu said what later became an explosion started with a white smoke. “It was one of the teachers that saw the smoke quickly rising in front of the school’s gate and rushed in to evacuate the children out of the school premises and ran straight to the hostel,” she told me.
“We noticed that there was a smoke in a thick whitish form before the blast,” Manaseh Ahamefuna said.
This smoke was seen rising and covering the area between the hours of 7 am and the major explosion happened around to 9 am.
According to some eyewitnesses, the blast happened five minutes after a tipper carrying granite parked on the pipeline. Due to its heavy content, it sank into the pipeline thereby blocking it, they said.
“In the morning of Sunday, around 8:35 am, I was going to charge my phone. Then I saw this tipper. There was only one driver and he was not staying at the steering. He was at the right-hand side. I saw the man struggling to open the door, and immediately, I started seeing smoke, it covered everywhere; I thought it was from the tyre.
“The military started shouting, telling us to go back. Immediately I ran back, it exploded. The explosion went up and spread,” an eyewitness narrated on condition of anonymity.
Another eyewitness who gave his name as Emmanuel said the explosion happened five minutes after the truck came into the estate.
Catholic Church counts losses
Describing the level of damage to journalists at the scene of the blast, Jerome Oduntan, director of education, Catholic Arch Diocese of Lagos, said the school had nine structures and all have been reduced to rubbles.
“As you enter, by the left, we had the staff quarters, everything is gone now. Then immediately after it, by your right, we had the administrative block, the classrooms, the dining, the chapel—a big chapel, we have a bit of the hostel standing there, then we have the convent… the convent is standing on one leg because the roof has been blown off, shattered,” he said
Reacting to the N2billion state fund, Oduntan said more than that amount was spent on the school. “How I wish the state government will just give us the whole N2billion,” he said.
According him, “The school has 268 students on the roll, and out of the 268 students, not one of them is dead.”
“None of my students died. Some of them sustained injuries, around 50. We took them to the hospital, they were treated and they were discharged. But we still have three of them who sustained serious injuries in different hospitals—Naval Hospital, Golden Cross, Festac, and LASUTH Ikeja—these are the three students who are still in the hospital,” he said, making sure he was understood.
Oduntan, however, confirmed the deaths of five members of staff, including the administrator of the school, the principal, Henrietta Alokha. Others are one female security personnel, Bidemi Johnson; one of the cooks of the students, Irene; the cook of the Reverend Father, and one store attendant.
Asked if he thinks it was bomb blast other than a gas pipeline explosion, he said it was not his field to know the cause of the explosion.
“I was told it’s a pipeline explosion, but when I came here, what I saw gives me another impression. But who am I to know? That’s why I’m saying that the government should please investigate, carry out a serious investigation to let us know what really happened,” he said.
He urged the government to have more respect for human lives, stating that the property was acquired over 25 or 30 years ago, and that there were no pipelines, adding that even while they built, no pipelines were found.
“We didn’t discover any pipeline…even during the construction, we didn’t see any pipeline. See where they said the pipeline is, on this side, and see where my school is. So, that is just it”.
“If it is true that we have pipelines buried around here, when were those pipelines buried? After the buildings were in place or before the buildings?” he asked rhetorically.
The blast: A terrorist attack or pipeline?
The blast was heard and felt in far-flung areas in Lagos State. The people living miles away in Surulere, Ikeja, Ikotun, and Festac Town heard the loud bang. Other neighbouring communities had either the roofs or ceilings of their buildings pulled off, the windows shattered or both.
Though the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had said the explosion happened when gas cylinders were hit by a truck in the area where Corporation has its pipelines, some residents strongly believe, given the scale of destruction, that it was a terrorist attack.
“With what you can see by yourself, if it were ordinary pipeline explosion, it would have exploded and burnt what is available, but houses miles away were affected. So, we’re suspecting it’s a terrorist attack; that is why we are praying the government to set in motion bomb disposal units to come and ascertain the type of bomb or what actually went wrong,” Umeh (mentioned earlier) said.
He added that it started at the edge of Bethlehem College and that the school was actually the target which was why two of its buildings sank into the ground immediately following the explosion.
“So, we’re suspecting it’s a terrorist attack. Boko Haram has entered Lagos, that is a fact. But let government come and do a thorough investigation and let them come to our aid,” he said.
Multiple sources and eyewitnesses also believe it was not just a gas pipeline explosion. They argue that the impact has never been seen in the history of pipeline explosions in Nigeria.
“The major issue is that the cause of this explosion should be identified, because to me, it is related to a bomb blast, except we just want to frame everything up. You can imagine the impact and the extent of damage. If it’s ordinary pipeline, we’ve seen cases of explosions even the ones that happened recently, there was no collapsing of houses and destruction of vehicles. It was just everything on that spot that got damaged,” said Raheem Utman, a baker.
‘Something suspicious about the explosion’
A day after the explosion, Akinbode Oluwafemi, ERA/FoEN deputy executive director, said the explosion could be likened to some military aerial bombardment and does not sound like pipeline explosion.
“There is something suspiciously different about this explosion. The scale of destruction is nothing like any of the pipeline explosions we have monitored and documented for several decades.
“The Sunday incident’s scale of destruction could only be likened to military grenade explosions or aerial bombardment. We can’t treat this casually as an accident caused by a truck,” he said in a statement.
Magnitude of destruction and casualty rate
The explosion which happened on March 15 demolished buildings, killed many people, left some in critical states, and damaged many vehicles.
From observation, more than two streets were affected, and in Umeh’s estimation, over 250 buildings were destroyed.
Having actively involved in rescuing victims at the initial stage, he told our reporter that over 50 people must have lost their lives and “3million people are homeless…,” he said.
However, official quotes from Oluwafemi Oke-Osanyintolu, Lagos State Emergency Management (LASEMA) director-general, pooh-poohed Umeh’s claims on the casualty figure.
Oke-Osanyintolu said: “As at this morning, we have 276 people displaced, 170 houses affected, and the houses that were affected are categorised into three: those that are mildly affected are 93 in number, those that are moderately affected are 44 in number, those that are severely affected are 33 in number. We have 43 vehicles affected out of which we have 40 cars and three articulated vehicles. We have one shopping complex affected, seven churches affected, six schools affected,
“However, from day one till day four, we rescued 57 out of which most have been treated and discharged, but we still have one at LASUTH receiving treatment, we have one at Navy Hospital, we have one at Golden Cross receiving treatment, and we have one at Alimosho General Hospital and they are receiving treatment. Again, we recovered 20 bodies, and we sympathise with their families.”
Federal, state governments’ response, plan, and way forward
BDSUNDAY learnt that a committee has since been constituted by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, headed by the Deputy Governor, Obafemi Kadiri Hamzat and co-chaired by the Commissioner for Ministry of Special Duties Paul Tayo Bamgbose Martins.
“The committee will look into how to rebuild this place, reconstruct this place, to ensure that this place moves back to a normal society as soon as possible with good infrastructures,” LASEMA boss said.
He also revealed that the agency has established an information centre that people can come in, make complaints, put down their names, adding that the governor also has directed them to also open a relief camp “and at the relief camp we’ve started taking care of the victims of this disaster.”
Earlier on Monday, a day after the explosion, Sanwo-Olu had disclosed that N2billion Abule Ado Emergency Relief Fund had been set up for the victims.
He also said that the state government had donated N250million to the fund and solicited for support from all Nigerians including private sectors. According to Sanwo-Olu, the fund will be used to pay medical bills of victims, support displaced citizens, among others.
In response to Sanwo-Olu’s visit to Aso Rock to brief President Muhammadu Buhari on the ugly incident, the Federal Government pledged its commitment to do all it can to support the victims of the blast.
Sadiya Umar Farouk, minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, who visited the site on Wednesday at the instance of the President, said they would join hands with state government to bring succour and relief to the victims in terms of food and non-food items as well as medical supplies to the hospitals where the people are being admitted.
“And we’re also going to be part of the committee that will come up with a strategic way of addressing this issue so that we don’t see this kind of unfortunate incident occurring ever again,” she adds.
Admitting that the level of destruction is devastating, describing it as “very worrisome,” and “not what I imagined at all,” she said the first steps have been taken, and that all the agencies: the National Emergency Management Agency, the Lagos State Management Agency, the Fire services and all others have joined hands to respond immediately when the incident occurred.
“We are going to work with the Lagos State in investigating the root cause; we’re also going to work in the area of setting up a strategic framework so we would address these issues once and for all. We’re also going to work in the area of rebuilding these structures that have been destroyed,” she assured.
While assuring the residents that the community will be rebuilt, Obafemi Hamzat, deputy governor, said efforts at the moment were focused on ensuring everyone was accounted and catered for.
“We’re gathering all the data of the people that used to live here to make sure that everybody is accounted for and from there we take decisions as how to now do everything,” he said.