By Martins Ifijeh
There was nothing on the Lagos skyline that could have foretold what was about to happen. It was a clear, warm Sunday afternoon in Nigeria’s biggest economic hub, Lagos. Lagosians and visitors who had business in Apapa went about their normal activities, while enjoying the peace and tranquility that accompanies most Sundays in the ever busy mega-city, oblivious of what was about to unfold. Then suddenly, there was an eclipse: an explosion and a wildfire like an eruption of volcanic lava forcing people to scamper for safety, while property worth several billions of naira were destroyed by the raging inferno that took hours to put out.
Just like the Hollywood movie, “City on Fire”, the popular seaport neigbourhood of Apapa experienced its own taste of a fire disaster. It was around 1.48 pm yesterday at the Niger Biscuit Company Limited, at 31 Creek Road, Apapa. The building was gutted by fire. According to an eyewitness, it started when a loose socket let out a spark, a bang, then smoke and balls of fire razed the building, equipment, products, gas tanks and cars parked within the premises of the factory that, for decades produced the ever popular Cabin Biscuit brand.
People within a five-kilometre radius of the company’s building could see the thick smoke as it billowed into the atmosphere, while thousands of onlookers watched helplessly, probably wondering if the windows of hell had been let loose as the inferno raged, rendering initial efforts to quell it ineffective.
Giving an account of how it started, a staff of the company, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed that the fire started when an electric socket close to one of the gas tanks let off a spark, resulting in the burning of the electric wires around it.
He explained that the fire then snowballed into a large one because there was a leak from one of the gas tanks. “Before we could comprehend what was happening, we heard a loud explosion. One of the gas tanks started burning, spilling its contents everywhere. And then the fire started to spread to other gas tanks, as well as other areas of the building, leaving everyone scampering for safety,” he said.
An eyewitness also revealed that the gateman who was sitting close to the first gas tank that exploded was affected by the fire, but was rescued immediately, even though he suffered extensive burns all over his body. He was immediately rushed to the hospital to save his life. At press time, THISDAY could not ascertain whether he has been stabilised or not. But feelers from the company’s staff suggested that he was in critical condition.
According to a THISDAY reporter who stationed in the premises to monitor the responsiveness of the company’s management and government emergency agencies, the company’s fire engine, which was quickly prepared to put out the inferno, did not achieve much because its water pressure was low, leaving the buildings and other property at the mercy of the wild fire.
Lagos State’s fire trucks, however arrived at about 2:36pm, to compliment the efforts of the company’s truck.
In an interview with THISDAY, the Head of Station, Assistant Chief Fire Superintendent, Mr. S.A Kehinde, explained that the Cabin Biscuit maker called his station at 2.15 pm, while he in turn mobilised his men to the scene of the fire.
“We got here with some of our trucks 20 minutes after we were called. But when I got here, I discovered there was need to mobilise other fire trucks from other stations to join us since the fire had gone out of control,” he explained.
In the end, there were over nine Lagos State fire trucks, three Nigerian Ports Authority fire trucks, Niger Biscuit’s fire truck, and at about 7pm, a Julius Berger fire truck joined in the mission to quell the fire.
According to Kehinde, two of his men were injured while trying to put out the fire. “You can see that an hour ago, a part of the building collapsed due to the heat from where the fire started. Unfortunately, one of my men was directly under the building when it collapsed. He has been taken to the hospital for treatment. I was also injured,” he said.
Also speaking on the incident, one of the fire fighters from the Lagos Fire Service, Mr. Ogunbanjo Kazeem explained that with the joint effort by several fire fighters from the Lagos State Government, NPA and UBA, among others, the inferno was put out.
When THISDAY contacted the factory manager of the company, Mr. Ganesh Kherede, he said he would address the press later, adding that he was not in the right frame of mind to speak.
One Mr. Peter, who talked to THISDAY, however, said he was from the insurance firm covering Niger Biscuits, and that he was on ground to see for himself the damage caused by the fire, adding that his company would look at its policy to ascertain the compensation that would be made.
Other companies such as the THISDAY Newspaper Group around the affected building were forced to shutdown operations temporarily or carted away some valuable goods out of fear that the fire would spread to their buildings.
THISDAY, which shares a fence with the affected company, had some of its window glasses shattered by the loud explosion.