Onitsha Fire: A Day of Rage and Anguish

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Sympathisers watch as the market was razed down in the inferno

David-Chyddy Eleke chronicles some of the events surrounding the recent petrol tanker fire incident that hit the commercial city of Onitsha, Anambra State, on Wednesday

Wednesday, 16th October, was to every Ochanja market trader like every other market day. The traders had opened for business at 8am, and had begun their normal trading. The market is a predominantly provisions market, and just like other markets in the commercial city, it has its fair share of importers, who also import household products.

On that day, business had proceeded considerably until about 1pm, when tragedy struck. Now, one surprising thing was that the tragedy that befell the town had almost nothing to do with Ochanja market.

A petroleum product-laden tanker had around Upper Iweka Road, which is still a distance from Ochanja market, lost its brake, leading to the tanker falling into a drainage canal. Its product immediately spilled into the canal, and since it was a sloppy area, the petroleum product ran down the drainage, carrying flame with it, straight to Ochanja market where traders and customers were unsuspectingly carrying out their business, leading to several shops being burnt down totally, and leaving behind about seven deaths, so far.

Chukwuka Okeke, a trader in the market narrated to THISDAY the exact mood of the people in the market before the tragedy struck.

“We were in our shops, when we got the call that there was fire burning at Upper Iweka. Though we saw smoke going up from a distance, nobody could believe it would extend to this place. For over three hours, we were perceiving the smell of petrol probably mixed with gas from a distance as it flowed through the drainage until the whole thing went up in flames, and entered into the market.”

THISDAY gathered that immediately the fire broke out in the market, all hell was let loose as traders started scampering to safety in different directions. While some fled their shops immediately, some who felt their shops were far away from the scene of the fire made to rescue their wares, while others made for the money they already sold for the day, before taking to their heels.

Over 20 cars and 50 shops were at the end said to have been lost to the fire, while casualties as at Thursday was put at seven. Some of those who lost their lives, though all unidentified, included a woman and her baby, who were burnt beyond recognition, two young girls suspected to be sales girls, who were found the next day, lying burnt in their shop and an equally unidentified man, who was said to be discovered in a shop, with his body still fresh and free of burn, and was said to have apparently died of suffocation.

Okeke, who told THISDAY that the woman, who was burnt together with her baby was his neighbor in the shop said, “The woman had already rushed out of the shop with her baby but she suddenly went back. She slipped off in the process and fell inside the gutter, which was already in flames.

In the case of the woman, what was even more annoying was the fact that the woman was said to have been childless for 16 years after marriage, until early this year, when she had the baby.

THISDAY gathered from Chukwuka Okeke too, that the woman who was his neighbor in the shop was a wife to another trader in the city of Onitsha, and that the birth of their only baby early this year had been a high point for the family, after 16 years of childlessness, but regretted that both mother and child could be lost in such a gruesome condition.

Another resident of Onitsha, Mr. Catherine Ilo, told our correspondent that she had never been as heartbroken as she was when her sister, who works with the Onitsha general hospital narrated to her the troubles doctors in the hospital went through to separate the charred remains of the baby from his mother.
“It was like the woman held her baby tightly as the fire burnt both of them, gluing them together,” She said

Did Anambra Government Fail?
If there is anyone that has received more knocks for the incident, the Anambra State government, Governor Willie Obiano and the Fire Service in the state had received more. First, it was a big knock for the state government that many hours after the fire started, the fire service was nowhere to be found. Sources said it took the intervention of the Delta State fire service for the fire to be put off, after the Anambra service arrived and detected a fault in their truck, which left them incapacitated.

Though there have been different accounts, as the Anambra State fire chief, Mr. Martin Agbili defended his organisation, saying he was unable to work after they arrived at the scene, because onlookers denied them access to the scene of the fire.

Agbili, while addressing the governor said, “Even the Delta fire service was not also allowed to the area. When fire equipment privately owned by a transport company, GUO Transport came, the people attacked them and vandalised the equipment. At that point, we had to leave.”

Though this viewpoint had been faulted as some commentators stated that there was no way people whose means of livelihood were on fire would have rejected help from a fire-fighting organisation that had come to help them.
Mr. Emma Ojukwu, the public relations officer of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, said, “The tragedy in Onitsha is a clear failure of governance. In 1997, the Onitsha main market was completely gutted by fire. Then, the Anambra State Government fire service could not put out an inferno that burnt all day.

“Twenty-two years later, Anambra State Government despite increased revenue has been unable to plan and show enough commitment to the people. Governance cannot and should never be a showmanship of repeated media propaganda aimed at achieving inexistent progress that the reality on the ground does not support.”

Ojukwu, however, called for funds donation for victims, saying, “A time like this calls for show of sincere love to all those, who were affected by the Onitsha Tragedy. Government should set up Anambra State Fire Relief Fund immediately, where great Anambrarians and beyond can contribute to assist Government cushion the effect of this disaster on our people.

“This is also a time, when all Anambrarians must eschew all kinds of political divide, to unite to face our common problem.”

Peter Umennadi, a commentator on social media said, “I vividly recall that this is not the first fire incidence in the state in this administration. In all occasions, we get consolations and promise to do something, without anything being done. What will it take the government to equip the fire service to combat fire anywhere in the state? It’s a pity that at all times we rely on Delta State fire service.”

Mr Valentine Obienyem, media aide to former Governor, Peter Obi, while speaking said it was not time for people to begin to blame government for what should have been done that was not done, but to join hands and commiserate with the victims of the fire.

He refused to join words with people, who were blaming the Peter Obi administration for failing in fighting fire issues, but said Obi was Lucky to be in Asaba to speak to members of executive council of Delta State for a retreat, and quickly told Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, when he received the call, prompting him (Okowa) to dispatch fire fighters from the state to Onitsha.

Obiano on Thursday visited the scene fire incident in Onitsha, promising to compensate the victims before Christmas. The governor, who was at the scene with members of his executive expressed unhappiness about the incident, assuring that government would not leave them alone in this moment of grief. Obiano said a panel had been constituted to sort out the level of damage and also compensate victims accordingly.

Obiano in a press statement by the commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr. C Don Adinuba, stated that all victims of the incident were invited to the conference hall of the Secretary to the State Government tomorrow, Monday 21 October, to help government ascertain the level of their losses and fashion out a way of ameliorating their plight.

Meanwhile, Anambra had since been thrown into mourning as a result of the fire, just as prominent indigenes of the state have continued to send condolence messages to the victims.

Senator Uche Ekwunife, who represents Anambra Central senatorial zone in her message to victims said, “What is most saddening is that the incident which took lives and destroyed goods worth millions of Naira at a time when most citizens are struggling to earn a living.”

Also, the member representing Idemili North and South in the House of Representatives, Hon Ifeanyi Ibezi said, “On behalf of Umu Idemili, I wish to express our heartfelt condolences to Ndi Anambra over the fire disaster, which took place in some parts of the Upper Iweka Road, and Ochanja market, Onitsha, Anambra State, Wednesday, October 16, 2019.