By Ikeugonna Eleke
Barely two days after a petrol tanker crashed at the Upper Iweka Area of the commercial city of Onitsha, taking a toll on life and property, another petrol tanker caught fire in the Omagba Area along the Enugu-Onitsha Express Way by Chukwudi Bus Stop. It set vehicles and property ablaze, including many mechanic workshops. The incident which occurred in the wee hours of Friday morning, was however said not to have taken any lives, even though it damaged property worth millions of Naira.
These two gory incidents came after the people of Anambra State rejoiced over the launch of Close Circuit Cameras by the Willie Obiano-led Government to fight crime in the state. The earlier incident last Wednesday had extended to the popular Ochanja Market and environs, killing a mother and child, including an unspecified number of others as at press time.
The Upper Iweka Axis fire which lasted for many hours, could not be put out because of the late response by the Anambra State Fire Service. It was believed that their late response aggravated the incident.
This would not be the first time the Fire Service of the state would fumble. In an earlier fire incident in Amawbia within the state capital, virtually in front of the headquarters of the Fire Service, the outfit responded very late, leading to disastrous consequences.
With history repeating itself in last Wednesday’s incident in Onitsha, Anambra indigenes have lashed out at the Anambra State Government and the Anambra State Fire Service, report Jude Atupulazi, Ikeugonna Eleke, Ifeoma Ezenyilimba, Abuchi Onwumelu and Chioma Ndife.
The backlash came despite the visit of the state governor to the scene a day after, where he promised to compensate those involved before Christmas this year.
Reacting to the Fire incident, the Auxiliary Bishop of Awka Catholic Diocese, Most Rev. Jonas Benson Okoye, who condoled with those adversely affected by the fire incident, said it was important for people to be trained on emergency evacuation procedure in order to give way to people trained to manage such situations.
He said there was need for fire service personnel to brace up to their responsibility and ensure prompt response to fire situations to prevent avoidable accidents which mostly led to loss of life and property.
He noted that for such accidents to be managed and its occurrences limited, recklessness of the drivers, nature of trucks and state of road in use should be examined. He said that the training of truck drivers was necessary and regretted that most drivers often did not get enough rest; a development that lulled them into dosing off on the steering.
Reacting, a safety and Fire Management Consultant, Chinemerem Oguegbe, called on the Fire Service Department in Anambra State to create a mini fire emergency unit with at least three to four tankers in all cities in the state.
He disclosed that such would help the fire agency to respond to emergencies and curtail the toll on human life and property.
Mr Emma Ojukwu, the public relations officer of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, said the tragedy in Onitsha was a clear failure of governance. According to him, in 1997, the Onitsha Main Market was completely gutted by fire. Then, the Anambra State Government Fire Service, he said, could not put out the fire that burned all day.
‘Twenty-two years later, the 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 non-existent progress that the reality on the ground does not support,’ Ojukwu stated.
He however called for help for victims, saying that a time like this called for a show of sincere love to all those who were affected by the tragedy.
He also urged the government to set up what he called Anambra State Fire Relief Fund immediately, where, he said, great Anambrarians and beyond could contribute to assist Government to cushion the effect of the disaster on the people.
‘This is also a time when all Anambrarians must eschew all kinds of political divide and unite to face our common problem,’ Ojukwu said.
Peter Umennadi, a commentator on social media said, ‘I vividly recall that this is not the first fire incident in the state in this administration. On all occasions we got consolations and promises 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?’ he queried, regretting the state’s seeming usual dependence on Delta State Fire Service.
Mr Valentine Obienyem, an aide to former Gov Peter Obi, said it was not time for people to begin to blame government for what should have been done that was not done, but time to join hands and commiserate with the victims of the fire.
He however refused to join words with people who were blaming the Peter Obi Administration for failing in fighting fire issues, but said that Obi was lucky to be in Asaba to speak to members of the executive council of Delta State at a retreat and quickly told Governor Ifeanyi Okowa when he received a call about the Onitsha fire, prompting Okowa to deploy fire fighters from the state to Onitsha.
For Osita Obi, human rights activist and social crusader, the Onitsha inferno was a collective failure of government and citizens, even as he said that more blames should go to the government.
‘Until the citizens begin to interrogate and scrutinize the actions and behaviours of government; until the government is called to account by the citizens and until citizens come off docility and shun sycophancy, situations like this will continue. Anambra State is simply declining,’ he said.
Another social commentator, community development and good governance enthusiast, Chris Ofodile, described the Onitsha inferno as a very sad development in Anambra State and Nigeria, which, he said, occurred at a time of peril for the country.
Ofodile, who said he mourned with the families that recorded losses and lost loved ones in the sad incident, prayed that the affected might find consolation in the kind words of people close to them in their moment of grief.
On how best to remedy and avert such situations, he said the state government should show commitment by giving the panel of inquiry it had inaugurated a mandate of two weeks to submit a detailed report on the remote cause of the fire incident.
He noted that the detailed report should be able to ascertain the level of damages caused and exact number of deaths and casualties that arose from the incident.
Ofodile registered his displeasure over the inability of the concerned government agency to timely tackle and avert the losses recorded in the inferno. He called on the Anambra State Government to urgently query the head of the State Fire Service and State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), over the failure of their organizations to perform the responsibility they were saddled with.
He also suggested that the state government put up a think-tank on how best to re-equip the State Fire Service against its workforce empowerment, including the SEMA; as well as empower the Red Cross to be able to intervene in such emergency situations.
The social commentator advocated for a stakeholders’ summit on emergency management and response. According to him, the summit would bring together market leaders, tanker owners and drivers, petrol station owners and landlords, to reach an actionable truce on how to prevent occurrence of fire outbreaks, regardless of whether they were caused by trucks or vehicles crashing.
Reacting to a news report which said the governor had directed those affected by the inferno to report at Alex Ekwueme Square, Awka, Ofodile said if such report was true, the governor’s advisers and handlers were either bereft of ideas or did not mean well for his government and the well-being of the state.
According to him, such would amount to insulting the bereaved while they mourned. Offodile said it would have been better if the governor had after visiting the venue of the incident and commiserating with the people, scheduled a meeting with them within Onitsha.
Another saddened citizen of the state, Mrs Matilda Ezemuoka, described the inferno as an indication of lack of proper governance and proper attention to issues bordering on human welfare in the state.
Narrating how the tanker that was fully loaded with substance suspected to be Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), fell at the Upper Iweka Axis of the Onitsha-Enugu Expressway, and caught fire, Mrs Ezemuoka said the fire moved through the drainage and went down to Ochanja Market.
Mrs Ezemuoka, who is an Onitsha based businesswoman, said the fire that started opposite Toronto Hospital, Upper Iweka, Onitsha, at about 2 pm, razed down many buildings and shops at Ochanja Market, leading to loss of life and property.
Recalling how the fire roasted human beings like yam, including people around trying to quench the fire with sachets of water, Ezemuoka flayed the Anambra State Fire Service for not coming to the rescue of the victims on time.
According to her, it was the Asaba Unit of the Delta State Fire Service Agency that later came to the rescue. Mrs Ezemuoka said the Anambra State Fire Service Agency later showed up three hours after the fire had caused much damage and was chased away by the people who were already infuriated.
She advocated for the setting up of fire service centres in markets and close to densely populated areas so as to avert such sad occurrences in future.
She expressed displeasure that even the Fire Service Unit at the Onitsha Main Market which was not far from Ochanja, came to fight the fire.
Meanwhile, condolence messages have continued to pour in for the victims.
Senator Uche Ekwunife who represents Anambra Central said what was most saddening was that the incident, which took lives and destroyed goods worth millions of Naira, came at a time when most citizens were struggling to earn a living.
Ekwunife noted that Ochanja Market which was most hit by the incident was a major source of revenue for the state where many Onitsha residents engaged in commercial activities for the purpose of earning a living and contributing their quota to the economic development of the state.
She urged the State Government to take proactive steps to curb the incessant fire outbreaks. She equally reiterated the need for public places such as markets and malls to have functional fire stations to ensure swift reaction to fire outbreaks. This, according to her, would go a long way in mitigating the damage caused when unfortunate fire incidents occurred.
Also, the member representing Idemili North and South in the House of Representatives, Hon Ifeanyi Ibezi, expressed his regrets on behalf of his constituents, over the fire disaster.
‘I am deeply saddened by this unfortunate tragedy and pray the Almighty God to give the bereaved and those who lost their property the fortitude to bear the loss.
‘It was indeed a sad occurrence that has once again reminded us of our exposure to risk, the transience of human life and the vanity of its accomplishments. At times like this, it is important we invoke our famed Spirit of Anambra, which emphasizes compassion, for solace and solidarity,’ he said, while commending the Government of Anambra State for its intervention and the decision to consider possible compensation to all those who lost their property, as well as the bereaved families.
‘On my part, I will see to it that the National Assembly uses the instrumentality of its law making capacity to regulate the movement of tankers in the country. It is my prayer that God will in this hour of trial imbue in us the spirit of brotherhood, love and care for one another,’ he said.
Governor Obiano Visits Scene of Onitsha Fire Incident, Anambra State Fire Service Command
…Promises to Compensate Traders Before Christmas.
Director of Fire Service, Agbili Reacts
Meanwhile, the Governor of Anambra State, Chief Willie Obiano, on Thursday morning arrived at the scene of last Wednesday’s inferno at Upper Iweka with a call on the victims to endure momentarily, assuring that he would put smiles on their faces soon.
The Governor expressed sadness over the incident, disclosing that a panel of inquiry had been set up and would commence immediate work to ascertain the number of shops affected and their owners.
Obiano said that well-meaning Anambra people had called to commiserate with the victims and urged them to take solace in the fact that the government of Anambra State was together with them in their trying moment.
He also expressed concern over the inability of the State Fire Service to be allowed to rescue the situation and assured that the Government would beef-up the Fire Service facility around the Upper Iweka Axis.
He also warned criminal elements to stay away from people’s property as a result of what happened, warning that government would deal decisively with anyone caught in criminal activities.
The governor, as part of his efforts to ascertain why the Onitsha fire couldn’t be quelled on time, later visited the Anambra State Fire Service headquarters in Awka.
He was received by the Director of Fire Service in the State, Mr Martin Agbili; Commissioner for Public Utilities, and Mr Emeka Ezenwanne.
After showing the governor round the premises and some of their equipment, Mr Agbili told the Governor that they could not arrive at the scene on time because of a little failure, explaining that the closest fire fighters who would have made it to the scene, were members of the Onitsha Main Market Unit, but that they were fighting fire elsewhere.
Mr Agbili said that even when the fire fighters got to the scene, people initially chased them away and that his men managed to escape the scene.
Since the fire of Wednesday, October 16, which occurred when a tanker laden with petrol fell at Upper Iweka in Onitsha and led to a fire that spread up to Ochanja Market through the open drainage, a lot of people have been seeking from the government how they can assist the victims.
In a press statement made available to Fides by the State Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr C Don Adinuba, the government expressed gratitude to those people and many others who, it said, were moved by the tragedy.
‘Truly, we are brothers’ and sisters’ keepers,’ the government said in the statement.
The statement also said that Governor Obiano had consequently opened a bank account to assist the fire victims. The account, Fides learnt, is known as the Anambra State Victims Support Account. The account number is 5030105029, Fidelity Bank PLC.
‘It is to be administered by the distinguished sons and daughters of our state who serve as trustees of the Anambra State Security Trust Fund led by Chief Chidi Anyaegbu, MFR, Chairman of Chisco Group,’ government stated in the release.
It enjoined all Anambra indigenes, friends, in laws and well-wishers, to donate generously to the victims.
Meanwhile, Governor Willie Obiano has initiated a move to grant the Anambra State Fire Service greater autonomy. Subject to approval by the Anambra State House of Assembly, the law setting up the state Fire Service will be amended to make it independent of the state Ministry of Public Utilities or any other ministry.
In a press release by Adinuba, the government said that the autonomy would free the Fire Service from unnecessary bureaucratic encumbrances and enable it to respond more effectively to the challenges of its mandate.
Consequently, the agency will have as its Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Air Vice Marshall Ben Chiobi, who is currently the Special Adviser to the Anambra State Governor on Creative Security, as well as Coordinator of the Anambra State Integrated Security System.