By Ekerete Udoh
Let me start first by apologizing for the absence of this column last week. Events beyond my control made it impossible for this column to be published. Thank you, dear readers, for the deluge of e-mails and text messages inquiring why the column did not appear last Saturday. You guys made me feel great-knowing full well that there a legion of devoted readers of this column out there every week. The quality and the caliber of the readers who sent inquires made it even more spectacular. Thank you guys!
Let me star first by announcing that if not for God’s intervention, you dear readers may never have gotten to read this column again-ever! The light embedded in me by God , the mind that weaves these words together for your reading pleasure would be been so tragically flickered and turned off for ever. In the place of looking forward to reading this column today, most of you would be engaging in sober reflection, of what my life had represented; what it may yet have represented and what a waste the loss of such a purpose-driven Nigerian was! As you picked up this newspaper today, my editor would probably have had my picture on the front page of this newspaper announcing the sad loss of one of their columnists-Ekerete Udoh and as always, my last column would have been published and you readers would reminiscence on a wide range of things past and what the future would have portended. As I am writing this column now, I am drenched in tears, my emotions are jarred and jumbled and I will be lying if I told you my mind is uncluttered.
I am still in a state of shock and freight. I am yet to reconcile the fact that I was just mere minutes away from dying in what must have been a most terrifying, horrendous and mind-numbing way to die; I am terrified of how I would have felt seeing the plane swaying from one side to the other and the sudden steep descent; the realization that all what you had striven to achieve, the hopes, the years toiled in the oasis of dreams, of years of hard work spent to forge a sharp, educated and intellectually rigorous and curious mind was all but a wasted exercise-your mortality starring you in the face and helplessly, with a mind numbed and in shock, you saw your life that a few hours earlier held great promise get consumed in a boiling cauldron that was once a comfortable cabin- a cabin that attest to man’s great scientific ingenuity but now had turned into a weapon of mass death.
God! I am still in tears. I cry for the people who were on that flight, the sheer horror, the scream and the prayer in multiple tongues and creed, the wailing of children and the mothers cradling their little ones-unsure of what was happening and the moment of truth, when you knew you life as you knew it…was over. The End. And I remember that I had experienced the same emotions before. Unlike that experience which I will describe shortly, the pilot had masterly and through the fingers of God guided that aircraft as the wings were on fire back to an emergency landing.
I remember the date as vividly as ever. The flight was British Airways flight 026 and the date was December 28 2005. Venue: John F. Kennedy Airport, New York. Destination: Heathrow Airport. London. I remember going through the security checks and finally settling down on the departure lounge and drinking two bottles of the Mexican beer-Corona. I remember how I excited I was about visiting Nigeria after almost seven years in America. I was looking forward to seeing my friends and to take in the sight and sound of London, before taking a connecting g flight to Lagos on December 30th, in time for me to usher in the New Year in Lagos and in a grand style.
I remember settling down on my assigned seat 28A and just admiring the vast and expansive thoroughly lit ambience of the majestic airport. The flight was scheduled to depart at 11.22pm. I was overjoyed when the huge aircraft taxied off the hanger and as the captain told the cabin crew to prepare for take-off, I muttered a short prayer as I always do, that God should take control. As the aircraft took off, I heard a loud thud and the spectacle that was unfolding before my eyes and those of the over 500 passengers on that plane would forever be seared in my memory. Looking out of my window seat which also was by the wings, I could see huge balls of fire shooting out of the wings.
The ball of fire was so huge and fiery that a report the next day in the New York Post stated that the “night sky of Queens, New York was lit by the flames emanating from the flight”. I remember the screams, the wailings and the resignation to death that finally descended upon us. I remember looking at the couple who sat next to me-who outwardly were pure hippies with their noses, lips, ears all festooned with pins and needles , but who now lifted up their heavily tattooed shoulders to reveal a shocking if not reassuring message : Jesus is Lord. As we held hands and prayed for the sweet repose of our sins, and hoping that the sharks below the Atlantic Ocean would be a little nicer to our bodies, at least not being so ravenously hungry (we had to try to make light of gloomy situation) we closed our eyes as the aircraft started losing altitude and we knew the end had come.
Miraculously, and with what aviation experts who analyzed the near-crash stated the next day on several television channels was a rare feat by the captain , he guided the plane back to JFK for emergency landing to be greeted by an avalanche of fire departments and other security agencies. We all looked like zombies, too shell- shocked to believe we were actually alive. On that flight were over 200 Nigerians and that year, was the one where aircrafts were falling off the Nigerian skies- That was November 28th 2005. Since then, I have been all tissues of fright each time I board an airplane. Now fast forward to June 3, 2012
As you may have read in my column of May26th, I was in Nigeria for about three weeks and only got back on Monday-June 4th. On Thursday-May 31st, I had left Uyo, the Akwa Ibom state capital after I had attended the State Banquet hosted by Governor Godswill Akpabio to celebrate ‘Democracy Day’. In Abuja, I had a series of meetings and was to head back to Lagos on Sunday afternoon to meet with someone on Victoria Island for a meeting at 6pm and then to head back to New York on Monday-June 4th via Arik Airline that was scheduled for departure by 3.05 pm for a direct flight to New York.
Even though I normally fly Arik from New York to Lagos, locally, I have flown Dana more than any other airline. As I got ready to go to the airport that Sunday, my mind was focused on taking the afternoon Dana flight. I had planned to be at the airport by 12 noon, to purchase the ticket for the ill-fated flight. The previous night, I had gone to bed early, in order for me to wake up refreshed and ready to hit the airport on time. However, a Guardian Angel in the name of Ini Akpabio-the owner of NANET Suites in Abuja, which was the hotel I stayed, insisted that he must give me a send off outing at a nite club in Abuja. Against my protestations, Mr. Akpabio insisted that I must accompany him to a night club. “Whenever I visit New York, you always take me to nite clubs, we must do the same tonight-so go get yourself ready and I will be in your suite in 30 minutes” he had stated with an air of finality.”
With that and not willing to make him feel bad for all the efforts he had made to give me a nice ‘send off’ (ini, had earlier driven all the way from Uyo, where he ,had been for almost a week in his truck (jeep) in order to get to Abuja early enough for us, to go out and enjoy the Abuja nite life,) I lumbered out of the bed and took a quick bath and exactly thirty minutes, we were out to Cobana Club and later ended up at Nanet’s ‘Celebrity Nite Club”.
By the time I got back to my room, it was almost 6 am and I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was almost 12 pm. To add a curious twist to the whole situation, Mr. Akpabio had brought out a schedule that one of his workers had given him, which stated that it was only Arik Air that was maintaining regular flight on that black Sunday. “This is very strange” Mr. Akpabio had stated “what happened to the other airlines? Is this a new thing?” The Arik schedule I had, had listed the last flight for the day at 5:15pm, and I settled for that one. Now convinced that there was no need to rush to the airport, I took my time and only left the hotel at 1.15pm for the airport. I was shocked to realize that other airlines had maintained their regular schedules and that it was not only Arik Air that was flying out of Abuja that day. The trolley guy that helped carry my luggage told me that there was a Dana flight that if we were lucky, I might still find a space in it. We thus redoubled our steps to Dana’s ticket counter, and I got there only to be told the flight was fully booked. “You can book the next one which is 7.45” the ticket agent had told me. “Is there something you can do to get me on that flight?” I had pleaded, to which the lady replied firmly “am sorry, the flight is full and the door has already been closed.”
Now convinced that I had truly missed the flight, I settled for a First Nation flight that was scheduled for 6pm. About 40 minutes after I had settled into the departure lounge, I heard the news that the Dana flight I had pleaded to be on, had crashed and all the passengers dead. I couldn’t believe what I had heard and I started thanking God for using Mr. Ini Akpabio as an agent to save my life. Had I not gone out the previous night, and had woken up early and refreshed, I would have been at the airport by not later than 12 noon and would absolutely without reservations, had bought the ill-fated Dana flight. The schedule was a good fit for my meeting. I would arrive Lagos at about 4pm and then take a taxi straight to Eko Hotel and Suites for my appointment, which would never have come, since like the fate of those innocent Nigerians who, like me were brimming with hopes and great things to do ahead- people like my friend and professional colleague-Dr. Livi Ajunonuma, now ended up as charred remains of a flight that should never have been allowed to fly in the first place given the account of the whistle -blower who stated that the management forced the pilot to fly the plane even when the station manager advised against it.
God used Ini Akpabio to save my life and as I opened the door to my home in New York having had a very smooth flight on Arik Air from Lagos to New York, and as I starred at my daughters faces who themselves were screaming and crying, I couldn’t help but mutter “I could have been one of those burnt beyond recognition at that wreckage site in Lagos and you know what, you guys could have been orphans….but God has a mission for me- a purpose that has not yet been fulfilled…that was why he used a Guardian Angel in Ini Akpabio of Nanet suites to delay my departure to the airport.”
To those victims who lost their lives in that ill-fated flight, my God Almighty give the families the fortitude to bear the loss.
Great to Have Reconnected with My Dear Friend, Ambassador Bianca Ojukwu
One of the highlights of my trip to Nigeria was the opportunity it afforded me to have reconnected with my dear friend of almost 25 years- Ambassador (Mrs.) Bianca Ojukwu. I had run into a mutual friend at the Hilton Hotel, Abuja and asked him if he had Bianca’s number. Knowing how close I was to the Bianca and her late husband-The Ikemba Nnewi-General Emeka Ojukwu, the gentleman did not hesitate in giving me Bianca’s number. “I am taking the liberty of doing this, because I know she would be excited to hear from you.” He had told me. With that, he gave me her number, and I quickly sent a late night text to the elegant lady her husband used to call “Madam.”
Early the next day, I received a call and the person on the other end asked if she was taking to Ekerete. I said “yes’ and asked who was on the line. In that sweet mellifluous voice that so thoroughly complements her exquisite beauty, she said “This is Bianca” and as we screamed on the phone like two babies, it was a great moment for me to have reconnected with my dear friend.
For the next one hour, Bianca and I were on the phone and doing reminiscences on a wide array of issues –especially about the Nigerian project. It was evident Ambassador Bianca Ojukwu is so thoroughly invested in the success of Nigeria, and asked me to use my medium to ask Nigerians in the Diaspora to consider coming home to join the developmental efforts of the Jonathan presidency. “Help me thank the guy that gave you my number…it is really great to reconnect with you. My husband used to ask about you, and I remember telling him that you were in the United States. It’s great to know that you are doing well and have not lost hope in Nigeria” Bianca had told me. I consoled her on the sad passing of her dear husband-General Emeka Ojukwu and wished her the best in her new national assignment as the Nigerian Ambassador-Designate to Spain.
Even since I interviewed her in 1989 as the ‘Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria’, Bianca and I had struck a wonderful friendship and she was responsible for the first ever and the only interview that the late Ikemba granted in 1990, on the state of his romance with the then beauty Queen-Bianca Onoh. The romance between Bianca and Ojukwu was a national sensation as several stories were woven around the affair-all based on innuendos and speculations---until the couple granted me an interview in 1990, for HINTs magazine, which was culled by major publications all over the world. Since I relocated to the United States in 1996, I had not been in contact with Bianca, until my last trip to Nigeria.