Onitsha. . . Danger, Debris and Death

By Uche Amunike

It is with a heart laden with sorrow that I type these lines. I am weak with despair. My heart bleeds and my mind is fast losing it. I feel pain. I feel disappointment. I feel cheated. I feel like I live in a part of the world where only animals should live. No human being deserves to live and survive like we do. Nigeria my country is one entity I love and cherish. It is a country I always celebrate with glee and hope. It is a country I prefer to appreciate than criticize.

However, I am hopeless, angry and saddened presently. I am cowed into submission of certain realities of my time. I am now really convinced that I have been living in denial all these years. I have always preferred to believe that things will get better in this country. It’s now time to face the real deal. What am I on about, you just asked? Well, I am on about the fire incident that happened at Upper Iweka, Onitsha on Wednesday 16th October, 2019. You see, I have lived in Onitsha for twenty seven years now. In those twenty seven years, I have witnessed a number of tragic incidents that have happened in the Onitsha Upper Iweka axis. It is either that a truck’s brakes failed and it crushed people and vehicles in their numbers, or that a fuel tanker’s brakes failed and it ended up burning people and cars alike. The last one that happened around that same spot claimed the life of one of my uncles, Emmanuel Anyaeji.

I still remember every detail of how the news was broken to us and how much, his death shattered the lives of his wife, children and also our family members. Now, this. it was really a black Wednesday for Onitsha and her residents.

I happened to be able to make it home in the evening of that fateful day and then, I saw gory pictures of burnt people. I saw people’s hard work over the years going up in flames. I saw umu igbo in their scores, fighting with their might in spite of the danger to quench a fire that had been burning for hours. I watched young men throwing satchets of pure water into the fire. Most painfully, I saw the picture of a mother and her child burnt beyond recognition. That image is the reason why I am still nursing an emotional and psychological scar. I kept on asking myself what that innocent child did to deserve such a horrible death. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the woman as I imagined her last moments knowing she would not be able to make it out of that fire with her child. Odiegwu o. Life is really short!!!

Now, the social media has been awash with all sorts of comments concerning this tragedy. Some have blamed the Fire Service. Some have blamed Governor Obiano. Some have blamed the Fuel Tanker driver. Everyone has their reasons for channelling their blames to their objects of blame. I do not blame them, either. Damages were done. Lives were lost. Everyone is angry. Some have called for the sack of the fire chief, Engr Martin Agbili. Some have called for his resignation. Some have called for compensations to every trader who got displaced in that tragedy. Well, I want to appeal to everyone reading this to calm down as damages have already been done. I am also trying to stay calm. I do not ascribe to the blames being given to Governor because he is not the fire chief. He has given that position to somebody who is very competent which is why I still ask, what really happened? I remember writing a piece on this column about the Anambra Fire Chief, Engr Agbili. He was seen in a video recording where he risked his life by entering into a building that was in flames to rescue people and quench the fire. He didn’t know that he was being recorded and after a while, he succeeded in quenching that fire and saved lives. It was a third party who saw that video that brought it to the notice of the governor of Anambra state and he duly sent for Agbili and rewarded him accordingly. He was heavily scarred with fire burns but was out of hospital as soon as he was treated, days after. I have tried to be rational in this case since it transpired on that black Wednesday afternoon. If Agbili could risk his life for people, what happened this time? That fire kept burning for about three hours before he showed up with his boys. Why? Was there no water with which to quench the fire? According to reports by the ABS correspondent on the day the governor visited the site, Agbili complained that they couldn’t come immediately because they had a little failure. What failure? You see why I have refused to blame Obiano on this? A fire chief should know that he cannot quench any fire if his trucks and necessary equipments for fighting fire are not properly put in place. They should be ready at all times.

Emergencies are not planned. Fire outbreaks are not planned. They just happen! So, there is no reason why he should give excuses about having any failures. And what about the Onitsha fire service? They complain about water and yet, River Niger is right behind them. Obiano cannot be handling things like that. He has appointed people who should be competent enough to do the right things. It’s called division of labour. Where are the SAs and SSAs whose jobs it is to see to the running of such agencies? Where are the special advisers? This is a huge lesson. I can’t believe Governor Okowa had to send his own Fire Fighters to come and quench our fire. What a national embarrassment. It’s a shame, really.

I have Governor Obiano to blame for not implementing sanctions on Fuel Tanker owners who default by plying our roads during the day as against the directive given by state government that they should ply only at night. That is where I have him to blame, because if he has as much as used one person as a scapegoat, others will learn from that and beware of such actions that might cause them sanctions. The time is now. The governor should take this seriously because Anambra indigenes and residents are angry. The last fire disaster would have been avoided for so many reasons. It was such an unnecessary loss of human lives and property. The tanker driver owner has nothing to worry about. He probably insured his company, so he will definitely be compensated. That’s the irony.

The Obiano government also needs to review this policy of allowing fuel stations and gas plants in residential areas. That is another disaster in the waiting. It is absolutely wrong and should be stopped. Imagine if a gas plant was situated in the Ochanja area where that fire outbreak occurred. Onitsha would have been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost. We need to start doing the right things in this country. That’s the only way the larger society can be sane, stable and progressive. Let me end this with a very interesting piece by a certified Safety and Fire Management Consultant, Mr Chinemerem Oguegbe. Please, read:


It is no news that Fire outbreak destroyed lives and properties of NdiAnambra at Onitsha. I am deeply touched by the level of loss of properties and the innocent lives in the inferno.

As a trained Safety Professional and Fire Fighting Consultant, I am trained not to apportion blames until every necessary investigation has been carried out and a detailed Root Cause Analysis of this incident clearly analyzed and result submitted to relevant quarters of Government for immediate action. While we await further information from the Government and other relevant agencies, I want to use this opportunity to openly call the attention of His Excellency Governor Willie Obiano to another great disaster waiting to happen in the State any time soon.

A very high risk activity is ongoing in the State and if left unchecked will cause more damage to what we saw yesterday at Onitsha.

This looming hazard is the proliferation of Gas Plants in Filling Stations across the State. Anytime I move around the State I see upcoming and existing structures built in Petrol Stations to accommodate Gas plants in same vicinity. What is more disturbing to me is the fact that there are no Emergency Plans or Emergency Evacuation Procedures for this arrangement.

It is highly unsafe to locate two very high risk activities in a particular location without a detailed Emergency Evacuation Procedure in place to checkmate the effects of this very hazardous high risk business operation. More worrisome is the fact that this businesses get approvals from relevant Government agencies and their plans approved before they commence these businesses.

Imagine if there was a filling station that had a gas plant within the area that was involved in the Fire Inferno yesterday. Let’s not imagine the consequences because,I am shivering as I am writing this. But the reality is that if not checked one day, it will happen and we will seize imagining and face the reality of neglecting Safe Practices.

I call upon the Executive Governor of Anambra State to, as a matter of urgency, look into this concern and immediately engage the services of Safety Professionals to do a detailed audit on the existing ones and proffer solution on ways to ensure that such businesses operate within Internationally accepted Safety Standards.

Let us share this until it gets to the Governor and immediate steps taken to save the lives of ndiAnambra especially now we are about entering the Harmattan season.

The message is clear. What more can I say? I pray that the souls of all the dead people in the October 16th fire incident will rest in peace. Amen. My heart also goes to everyone who was directly or indirectly affected by same. God bless us all. Amen!