- Last week fire ignited by electrical fault gutted the VIP block and destroyed part of the arrival and departure facilities at the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, Owerri. Chinedu Eze writes that the slow reaction to the fire outbreak indicates that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria is not prepared to effectively attend to emergencies at nation’s airports
Many air travellers and industry observers who watched the video clips of the fire that burnt parts of the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, Owerri expressed happiness that no human life was lost and that it was not an aircraft that was involved in the fire.
Many who spoke to THISDAY said the slow reaction of the fire department of the airport to put out the fire indicated that it would have been unable to extinguish such fire if in time aircraft was involved.
They recalled the tragic accident involving Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145 on December 10, 2005 when low-level wind shear brought down the aircraft at the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa and it bursted into flames, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) did not have serviceable fire tender with water and foam to put out the fire. So those who survived the initial accident were finally burnt to death. Out of the 110 persons on board, seven survived, but five persons died later in the hospital.
In the Owerri airport fire incident time ticked from seconds to minutes as persons at the airport scampered away from the area of fire and motorists slammed their accelerators and headed out of the airport. The thick black smoke wafting from the fire had spiraled into the clouds, colouring the atmosphere with foreboding ash before a fire tender was seen driving languidly towards the area of fire.
THISDAY learnt that a month before the fire incident happened, there were no serviceable fire tender until a new management appointed by FAAN recently repaired the vehicles. In other words, if the fire had happened a month before there would have been no fire fighting vehicles to put out the fire.
It would have been equally difficult for state fire service to bring in their own vehicles because the airport is located far from the city and the road to the Owerri main town is known for heavy traffic.
But the General Manager of the airport, Mrs. Rejoice Ndubunachi, told THISDAY that the fire was put out in time and that the only area severely damaged was the VIP building, noting that flight operations continued that day the fire incident happened and that the airport has been processing passengers since then.
She also told THISDAY that renovation was going on at the airport when the fire occurred and expressed optimism that FAAN would quickly repair the damaged facilities at the airport, which is becoming a busy airport, adding that currently the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport records eight landings a day from commercial flights and caters for air travellers from Imo state, Abia state and part of Anambra state.
Cause of the Fire
The fire was attributed to faulty electric cable which sparked fire and burned slowly in the ceiling of the building before it escalated when heavy smoke pulverized the atmosphere. Industry insiders alleged that the airport terminal and allied structures were built with inferior materials when work at the airport facilities were hurriedly done.
A former Managing Director of FAAN anonymously wrote his experience when he managed the agency and said that interferences from the then ministry of aviation and Presidency never allowed the agency to effectively manage the airports and provide the needed equipment and materials for efficient running of the airports.
He made a reference to the low quality of materials that are supplied to FAAN by contractors handpicked by top government officials in the Ministry and the Presidency and said during the period he was the managing director, a contractor who supplied foam to the fire department brought very inferior foam, which he rejected.
“This terminal (Owerri airport terminal) was one of the urgent reasons why I was fired. Its promoters were damn too offended by my insistence on certain things being done. There was a consignment of fire fighting foam delivered by a contractor that I insisted to test and found that it could hardly put out fire and rejected it. This caused me unimaginable trouble in Abuja. When they summoned me, I told them I tested the foam and it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. That it could be any of them (VIPs), including even the President that could be involved in a fire incident in Lagos and we would attempt to fight the fire with this useless foam. Who would take the can (responsibility) if such happened?
“I said no, the foam must go. They did everything to intimidate me to accept the consignment. It was worth N150 million ($1 million at the time). They even said “okay, just use it for training”. I refused. I made very big enemies up to the Villa. This particular guy had been supplying foam to several airports for years. For this, I cancelled his contract (among very many others that I cancelled and made me a highly controversial Managing Director),” he said.
THISDAY spoke to two senior officials in FAAN who acknowledged that what the former FAAN Managing Director wrote encapsulated the problem of the agency. One of the officials told THISDAY that budgets would be made and funds earmarked and approved but some highly placed persons in government would “pocket” more than half of the money and “use the balance to buy inferior materials and nobody will talk.”
“So simple thing as the purchase of foam is given out as contract and you know that this foam is critically important for the fire department because without foam you cannot put out the fire. Yet, they will go and buy inferior ones. Most of the projects done at the airport are inferior, including the buildings. So politicians are part of our problem; in fact, they are the major problem that we have,” the official said.
Also a manager at the headquarters of the agency in Lagos told THISDAY that FAAN may never rise to effectively manage the airports and the nation’s airports may never rise to compete with major airports in the world because the ministry and the Presidency cannot allow FAAN to function effectively and fully take charge of the airports.
“As long as there are interferences and the managing director of FAAN is a mere rubber stamp, we may never have effectively functional airports in this country. Before you even talk of concession, you should allow FAAN to manage the airport without interferences and see whether they will not manage it very well. And I can assure you they will manage it well without interferences,” he said.
Managing Director’s Visit
The Managing Director of FAAN, Saleh Dunoma, on Thursday, paid a visit to the airport and expressed happiness that there was no casualty during the fire incident and disclosed that Zenith Insurance had conducted the evaluation of the damage and has agreed to pay the claims in full.
He said the authority would do all within its powers to ensure that the airport was renovated as soon as possible, so as to ameliorate the inconveniences the incident may cause airport users.
He thanked the incumbent Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, and the governor-elect, Emeka Ihedioha, for their support and timely intervention during the incident, also thanked the Air Force commandant, the Divisional Police Officer, Owerri airport command and their team for the role they played during the incident.
While stating that a committee has already been constituted to inquire into the remote cause of the incident, the managing director advised the airport management to continue to engage the host communities and other stakeholders collaboratively in the interest of all.
However, the General Manager of the airport, Mrs. Ndubunachi, said the incoming governor, Ihedioha had shown indications that he would support FAAN in providing critical infrastructure that are presently lacking at the airport.
Currently, the airport has no airfield lighting so airlines carry out daylight operations at the airport, which known as 6:00 am to 6:00 pm , but it is expected that airlines could operate into the airport in the night if airfield lighting is installed.
On fire equipment and personnel, the airport general manager said there were two fire tenders and adequate personnel for the category of the airport. But THISDAY investigations revealed that due to the fact that training for fire fighters are done outside the country, many of the personnel are behind schedule in training, but recently the federal government has started serious talks on the installation of firefighter simulator for the training of firemen for the airports and Nigeria’s fire departments all over the country.
So the fire incident at the Owerri airport has shown once again how the airports are ill-prepared for emergencies.