Rage of Strange Fire

31 Oct 2012

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As Nigerians grapple with flood disaster across the country, Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that outbreak of fire disaster is baring its teeth on Nigerians, even when the harmattan season is still months away

The fire starts small. The people rescued themselves first before their goods. But, hours after the fire incidents, they counted losses in millions of naira.

Last Saturday at Euro-Asia Plaza, off Martins Street, Marina, Lagos Island, merchants wailed uncontrollably. The fire outbreak has touched their very dear life. All their investment has just been burnt in an inferno that lasted for hours. While the fire raged, the helplessness of the victims who are majorly traders was compounded as they watched their wares go up in flames.

The fire which engulfed the fourth and fifth floor of the plaza, five-storey floor building with a pent house, was said to have started on Saturday, 27 October at about 4pm.

According to THISDAY checks, the market which was best known for shoes housed about 2000 traders and their wares.  Fortunately, the fire occurred during the recently concluded Sallah break, which explained the no loss of life as most of the traders were resting at home.

Speaking to THISDAY, the President of the plaza, Mr. Greg Azubuogu, said, “When I got the call, I rushed here and we called the fire service and the police and they responded. Unfortunately, their water soon finished and so the firefighting was put on hold until 7pm when their water was replenished.

“It was after then that the fire service from United Bank for Africa (UBA) and Union Bank came to assist in putting out the raging fire but before they could make any effort, the fire had become so angry, consuming all the consumables. They tried to fight the fire but the fifth floor first collapsed before the fourth floor subsequently followed suit.”

Their sagging spirits were soon buoyed by the visit of the state governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, who although promised them compensation, said the first step was to put out the fire completely and then test the stability of the building before the rebuilding process can start.

Azubuogu said, “The governor promised to compensate us but noted that the structural engineers would first run series of test on the building to know whether the building was stable enough for rehabilitation. “But we are asking him as a father is to help relocate us but he complained that after building a market for us at Oluwole area, we refused to park in. We tried to let him understand that it was quite expensive for us.”

Their reasons for shrugging off Fashola’s offer in the first instance they say, it is because the market would cost any potential occupier a whooping annual sum of N3.6m as against N160, 000 they paid for their original burnt building.

He said, “The structure put up by the state government at Oluwole is quite expensive for us. The annual rent would cost about N3.6m at the new market but here, it our rent is between N160, 000 to N200, 000. The disparity in prices depends on the size of the shop.

“If you compare the huge price range between the old and new shop, you can’t even make it in terms of profit. The overhead cost will be much. The money for the new shop is enough to start up business and this includes renting a shop and stocking it up.”  Mr. Tochukwu Nwosu, a trader told THISDAY that a total estimate of the loss in the entire plaza would amount to over N1billion.

He said, “My loss is great. I had goods worth N13million in the two parking shops on the fourth floor and they are completely gone now. I would have taken the loss harder save for the remaining shop on the third floor.

“I just pray that the fire does not go beyond the fourth floor. At least, with the goods I still have left in the shop, I would be able to start life all over again. But I must say that I am worried. The fire seems to be rekindling.”

For the Public Relations Officer of the plaza, Mr. Chidi Obimdike, their loss was more painful having passed through a similar fate four years ago in Mandilas Plaza before they relocated to the Euro-Asia plaza.

He said, “Our pain is deep because this recent fire awakened memories of the similar fate that befell us four years ago. On February 8, 2008, our shops got razed down at Mandilas Plaza and despite the promises made to us, we were not compensated.

“With the resilience Nigerians are known for, we relocated to this place and started life again from the scratch. We were still trying to find our feet when this one happened again and crippled us.”

Just before the fire outbreak at Lagos Island, the mainland had its fair share of the outbreak too.  From the ashes of their own loss sweat, the victims of the popular plank market caught in a strange fire also recount their ordeal. The popular plan market at Isolo got burnt on October 11, 2012.

Although no actual figure was put to calculate the amount of loss recorded in the inferno that razed down the market, victims say that goods worth millions of naira were destroyed.

Eyewitness account revealed that the fire was caused by an electrical fault in one of the shops located at the back of the market, which houses foams used for upholstery.

The fire which started at about 10:45 am caught the majority of the traders unaware as they were holding their weekly general meetings after observing the mandatory Thursday market environmental cleaning exercise (a general exercise practiced all over Lagos).

Whilst the fire was raging, spirited individuals, policemen from Ejigbo Division and officials of the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA), shut down the lane nearest to the market to keep it at bay, especially from affecting the moving cars on the road.

THISDAY also gathered that efforts to put out the raging fire failed as almost all the shops were completely razed before the arrival of fire service men. But, even the presence of the fire service and their trucks of water did no good as the fire fighters fight very hard to no avail. Ironically, some of the traders had salvaged their property from the fire only to lose it to either hoodlum who pretended to be helping out. Again, one of the traders said to have attempted to salvage some building materials from his burning shop reportedly got chocked in the process and was later rushed to the hospital.

Initially, the traders were benumbed with shock and unbelief but this soon gave way to tears as reality inevitably set in. All over, it was tales of anguish, pain and anger at the monumental loss. While some lamented the loss of their capital, some others bemoaned their fate as they were trading with borrowed money.

Although feelers claimed that the victims are rebuilding so as to prevent the State government from claiming the land, they however stated otherwise. According to them, they were rebuilding because they had no option.

For one of the victims, Mr. Adebanji Ogunbayo, though his body thrummed with the need to get the much needed rest, yet, he labored on with one goal in his mind; completion of the reconstruction. While he was busy he let go of the memories comprising of the loss and pain and embraced the thought of completion.

Ogunbayo recounts how the fire started. He said, “ we were having a meeting outside when we noticed the smoke fumes but before we could do anything, the fire had gone beyond control.”

He said, “It was later we gathered that the fire started from the shop of one woman that sells foam. We lost it all but we are re-building because we cannot sit down and wait for the government to do it for us.  “The chairman of the local government came and promised to help but we cannot wait for them to and that is why we are rebuilding. We are doing this with our money and even though we are not expecting compensation from any angle.”

When asked the extent of his loss, he said, “I cannot estimate the amount I lost because I lost all the goods in the both shops I have in the market. I am yet to start estimating or calculating the loss. That will be after I have rebuilt my shop.”

For Mrs. Ofem Nkem, her loss could have been worse save for the rain that fell that day. She said, “Save for the rain coupled with the intervention of the men of the Lagos State Fire Service, our loss could have been worse.

“Even at that, almost half of the market was consumed by fire and this is due to the nature of the goods we trade in which helped the fire spread swiftly. It is a shocking experience. Just under 30 minutes, our lives were altered forever.”

Also, a manager of one of the burnt shops, Mr. Joshua Onipade, told THISDAY that the fire took them by surprise. He said, “At first, we relaxed thinking it was just a small fire that would soon be put out.   Alas that miscalculation on our part proved fatal as the fire spread under minutes and consumed the market. We called the fire service but the fire was so much that it got out of control and within 30 minutes, the market was gone.”

He adds: “The fire service officials came prepared but it seemed as if the fire just intensified the more they poured water. They tried their best. Although we were able to bring out some of our goods; PVC ceiling and because of its bulky nature required a lot of hand to move it. We succeeded in carrying it out but most of our goods were spoilt because people trampled on it.

My neighbour was luckier. He had a car and so he was able to transport his goods away before the market was razed down. In estimation, we had goods worth N2.5m before the fire but from what we calculated, we were only able to salvage goods worth N500, 000.”

While disclosing that they pay N60, 000 annually as shop rent, he could not however say if by rebuilding the shop, they will get a discount when paying for next year’s shop rent.

As traders bemoan their loses to fire outbreak in the market places, experts have warned that, adequate preparation would be required to mitigate effect of sudden outbreak of fire as harmattan season draws near.

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