Death Toll of Collapsed Church Building in Uyo Put at 29

  • Church’s pastor speaks from hospital bed, absolves self of blame

Chiemelie Ezeobi in Lagos and Okon Bassey in Uyo with agency report

The number of people who died in Saturday’s collapsed Reigners Bible Church building in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom capital, has been put at 29.

The state Commissioner of Police, Murtala Mani, confirmed this in Uyo while speaking to the media yesterday.

However, Reuters disputed the figures, anchoring doubts on witness accounts. Reuters said no fewer than 100 people were killed by the collapsed church belonging to Reigners Bible Church International, according to a resident and photojournalist who visited a morgue.

On Sunday, it was reported that 27 had died, while 37 persons, who suffered from various degrees of injury were receiving treatment at designated hospitals.

The latest figure now shows that 35 persons injured were receiving treatment. The police commissioner said: “The remaining 35 persons are responding to treatment.”

He however declined to confirm whether any member of the Akwa Ibom Executive Council (EXCO) was involved. “I don’t know of any EXCO member involved,” Mani said.

He also said that he was not aware of the arrest of the contractor and the engineers that handled the church building project.

In a statewide broadcast on Sunday condoling the victims’ families, the state governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel, had ordered the arrest of the contractor that handled the church building.

Emmanuel also ordered an investigation into the cause of the building collapse during a worship session, where the governor himself, who was in attendance but escaped unhurt.

The governor was the special guest of honour at the bishopric consecration service of the church’s founder, Mr. Akan Weeks.

The church sited along Uyo village road near Government House, was alleged to have been hastily completed to host the bishopric enthronement of the founder.

Despite the official casualty figures provided by the police, the Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Charles Udoh, yesterday said that the state government could not release or confirm the exact number of deaths recorded following the collapse of the church until reports of various agencies involved in the rescue operation were compiled.

The commissioner, who was one of the survivors of the tragedy and was admitted at the Ibom Specialist Hospital for the injuries he sustained, made the statement from his hospital bed.

“I have directed my Permanent Secretary and Chief Information Officer to get in touch with emergency agencies to ascertain the actual figures so that we can release them formally.

“They have assured me they are on top of it. I will get in touch with them again and will be able to sort that out as soon as possible,” he said.

Opening up on his ordeal at the church, Udoh said: “Watching the roof come down was like watching a scene in a movie. I was actually trying to rush out to catch a flight, just as I stood up to seek His Excellency’s (the governor) permission, I saw the roof coming down.

“Surprisingly I did not panic, even with the notion that the roof was coming down. The first thing that came to my mind was to avoid the main pillar from hitting me; the other option was to try and get in between the iron rods, this was within a split of second.

“When that thought came I was like: ‘This thing is going to chop off my head.’ So the next thought was to pick up a chair to protect my head, but and the thing slammed the chair out of my hands and landed on my head.

“I didn’t fall, I was still standing, then my phone fell, so I bent to find my phone when I realised that my face was covered with blood.

“I tried finding my way out, when the lady that was beside held me and begged for help. I tried to help but couldn’t because she was already trapped.

“At that moment the only thing that came to mind was to get out of the rubble before I lost consciousness. Luckily for me, as I got out, I saw my police orderlies and was rushed to the hospital.”

Nollywood actor, Ekere Nkanga, who was also injured, said: “From my knowledge of safety first, there is no accident that is not a human error.

“I actually observed that the church was under construction and the roof was partly covered. Shortly after the governor and all the EXCO members and the bishops took their seats, we were about start the main event, then we heard a loud sound.

“From the moment we heard the sound and the moment we saw corpses wasn’t up to 10 seconds. This was beyond comprehension; I personally saw death coming but some force greater than me kept me alive.

“A few seconds later, when I was trying to get up, the body of a man cut into two from the belly was on me. There were corpses on me. From the crumbled parts of corpses, God raised me up.

“I looked at the man on my left, he was like a vegetable, so I picked him up and gave him to the next man, looked out for my brother but I couldn’t find him but I was able to control the panic rising in me.

“So, I later found my phone and called the Chairman of Uyo Local Government Area to mobilise rescue and medical teams. People were crying seeing their relatives dead.

“I had to start beating people to ascertain those that were dead and those who were alive. We were able to free about five to eight people who were trapped before I started searching for my brother.”

Nkanga added that in the mayhem that ensued, he did not know that he had been injured in the neck until he felt a paid around the neck and a subsequent x-ray at the hospital showed that he neck was sprained necessitating his admission.

Church’s Pastor Absolves Self of Blame

Also speaking in a radio broadcast from his hospital bed in Uyo, the founder and presiding pastor of the church, Mr. Weeks, appealed to residents of Akwa Ibom State not to blame him for the tragedy, insisting that he was innocent.

Weeks, who spoke from an undisclosed hospital, said: “I am presently injured, one of my legs has been condemned and I am still being treated. This is not the time to criticise me. I am still your brother, I am still your pastor, all members of Reigners’ family stand by their people.”

The pastor debunked rumours that despite the tragedy, he still went ahead the same day to be enthroned as a bishop at a church near Uyo.

“Please, let nobody believe the rumour that I have been enthroned as a bishop. The enthronement was cancelled completely and I am not interested.

“I am much more interested in the souls of those people that I laboured to win over to Christ over the years right from my tender age. I am so sorry I sympathise with all the families. Please let us rise and pray, together we will win the battle,” he said.

He added: “The incident that happened on Saturday during my enthronement was very unfortunate. But God is still on the throne. What happened, God knows best, nobody can question him and I want to say that for the departed souls and those injured, God will give a quick and speedy recovery wherever they are.”

He said since the incident occurred, the church’s leaders had visited all the hospitals across the state to pray with people and console them.

“I want to say to every family in pain that God is the healer. Let all Christians in Akwa Ibom State know that this battle is not Akan Weeks and his church. It is a battle between the kingdom of darkness and the church in the land,” he said.

Weeks thanked the state government, security operatives, hospitals and blood donors, among others, who had helped with the rescue operation.

“I want to say a very big thank you to the governor, Deacon Udom Emmanuel, for his support and love for standing by us in this trying moment.

“I also want to appreciate all the medical personnel, the hospitals, those that have donated blood, and those that have been standing by us in this trying moment.

“I am really sympathetic over the departed souls; you are really in my heart. As soon as I recover fully, I will come on air to also pray and appreciate every one of you,” he promised.

Synagogue Dismisses Claims of Stampede

Meanwhile, the Synagogue Church of all Nations (SCOAN) yesterday dismissed claims that three persons were killed in a stampede that allegedly occurred within the church’s premises at the Ikotun area of Lagos.

Reports earlier yesterday said the victims died while struggling to see and touch the General Overseer of the church, Prophet Temitope Joshua, popularly known as TB Joshua, during a special healing service held at the church.

Although the reports claimed that the police from the Ikotun Division had moved the corpses to the mortuary pending identification by their relatives, the church claimed no stampede occurred.

The Synagogue church witnessed a similar tragedy two years ago, when a six-storey guest house within its premises collapsed, killing 115 persons, 84 of them from South Africa.

Speaking yesterday on the condition of anonymity, one of the media officials of the church said: “It was just a rumour. I can tell you categorically that nothing of such happened here.

“Funny enough, I was even in church on that said Saturday when they claimed it happened. All the same, when I got the call from a journalist, I still consulted the media team.

“You can do your findings. Nothing like that happened. You know the media team follows the prophet around with a video and still camera. How come none of the cameras picked up the stampede?”

When THISDAY reached out to both the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and its state counterpart, Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA), they also said they were not aware of any stampede at the Lagos-based church.

The state Commissioner of Police, Fatai Owoseni, also said he was not aware of any stampede of any nature in Lagos.

According to Owoseni, there was no way something of that nature could have happened without the police in the area being aware of the incident.

He said he was aware that the Synagogue Church had a programme over the weekend and asked for security, but added that his men did not file any report of a stampede.

Further attempts by THISDAY to reach out to the chief security officer of the church, one Mohamdim Ahmed, proved abortive, as he did not respond to the calls on his phone. He also did not reply to a text message sent to him as of press time.