For shop owners and residents of Awokpe Street, off Ojo Road, Alaba, Lagos, last December left sad memories, when a fire outbreak destroyed about 30 rooms and shops worth millions of naira. Rebecca Ejifoma writes

In this harsh economy presently taking its toll on the livelihood of many homes, a large number of Nigerians recently mourned their losses to a hellish inferno which destroyed their property. For them, last December was the worst month ever. Their plans to relish the holidays had been dashed beyond repair.

The floor of hell had cracked, broken; thereby, released its unquenchable fire on earth but made Awokpe residence its footstool.
Descending at the oddest hour and season of the year, some of the casualties, who spoke to THISDAY on anonymity, said that they had gone shopping in bulk and reshaped the walls of their businesses in preparation for massive Yuletide sales and fat gains.

According to one of the affected tenants, the fire had already crept into several rooms, consuming properties and millions of cash before help came. And being a building clustered with mini-rooms and shops ranging to 30, they said the harmattan fuelled it. It consumed everything it touched.

Now, when THISDAY visited the scene of the incident the next morning, bus drivers and street boys sleeping in stationed vehicles along the streets said they noticed thick smoke exuding from the first shop. “It sparkled with fire and brimstones,” they said.

In counting her loss, one of the victims, Mrs. Patience Osuji, narrated her nightmares. “It happened a few minutes before 2am. I was sleeping in the living room with my children. I didn’t know the fire had entered my bedroom already. But God used one brother to wake me up.”

Having come out with nothing except her life and her children’s, Osuji explained that her neighbour banged hard on her door and then ordered her to come out. “His voice was so loud that I woke up frightened. Alas! The entire room was engulfed with thick black smoke. I leaped quickly, dragged my children and ran out. This brother helped us at the door post.”

With gloomy eyes, she continued that thanks to some young men sleeping in vehicles parked on the streets, they are alive. “He told me that it was the boys sleeping in those buses that alarmed them to the outbreak.”

Osuji, who is a young widow, told THISDAY that her tailoring shop down the street had become her new home. Amidst her loss and grief, she remained faithful to her God. “I am grateful to God. There is life and I will come back strong.”
On how it all happened, the seamstress – who was an occupant of two rooms – explained that because the houses were joined to one another, minor fire incident had occurred twice before but it was quenched. “Two times, we were told that the riot of electric cable on the pole beside our building was responsible,” she said.

From her words: “The fire began in a shop where an old woman sold fufu. They said she left the burning coal inside before leaving for her home. The coal burnt heavily then consumed the big refrigerator beside it. And as it burnt, it transferred to mine since my room was the next.”

According to her, this is the first time to see a building raze down completely. “Three fire fighters’ vehicles came when it was already too late. They said it was traffic. Two came from Lekki while the other was from Iyana Ipaja.”
Consequently, she decried that her entire goods were consumed. “I tied only wrapper on my chest out. Sympathisers bought me this skirt, blouse and slippers I’m wearing now.”

While speaking with THISDAY in her shop, some of her friends visited to console her. She said several had come to be with her. Others simply spoke with her through her friend’s phone to encourage her.

Notwithstanding, a witness, who said he was sleeping in his kiosk near the building, recounted his ordeal: “The fire started from the first shop, where fufu was sold. The seller told us that she left a pot of coal with slight fire in it last night before she went home. But unfortunately, the burning coal escalated into wild flames.”

Sadly, the anonymous witness, who runs a baba-ijebu business, emphasised: “We tried to extinguish it. But it spread so fast like wild wind and razed the entire building as a result of the harmattan. We called the fire fighters immediately but before they got here the fire had gone wild.”

“The fortunate thing for him was that his girlfriend lives in the next street. She came here, broke the shop open and packed his money out. She was able to bring out some of the very expensive phones before the fire transferred to the shop.”
Now, since his kiosk is diagonal the building, he said he and some men were there when it happened. “Although late, fire fighters came. Unlike their usual routine – insufficient water – these men quenched whatever was left. They really tried.”

But the woes of these residents became a channel of wealth for thieves and burglars. “Now, while we helped some occupants out, some thugs stole from the shops. For instance, the phone shop was full of new accessories, because the seller had brought in new arrivals.”
He added that fortunately for the phone seller his girlfriend lived in the neighbourhood. “His girlfriend came here, burgled the pad open and packed his bank of money out. She was able to bring out some of the very expensive phones before the fire transferred to the shop.”

Having toured the scene, THISDAY gathered that most of the occupants owned very big generator sets and had stored gallons of fuel, too for the next day. Some of the shops were made of planks, which served as boosters to the aggressive harmattan; thereby, making the flames really fierce.

A pharmacist, whose shop was also reduced to dust, explained that the landlord had been alerted of the incident. Without giving his name, he said: “This time, the owner has promised that the rooms would not be as much as it was the first time. He assured that renovation would commence in earnest.”

Therefore, having reduced the building to debris under the clouds, sympathisers interceded for the victims. “Several of the tenants have been hanging on the streets with their children. They really need help.”