Many people were trapped and feared dead, yesterday, while scores of persons sustained injuries in Onitsha, Anambra State, as a petrol-laden tanker lost control, crashed into Toronto Hospital at Upper Iweka, along Enugu-Onitsha Expressway and burst into flames. The incident, which occurred at about 12 noon, is the second tanker accident at the same spot, that had claimed over 50 lives this year. The latest victim among others, who lost their lives, was a pregnant woman and her three-year-old baby strapped to her back.
According to an eyewitness, the woman had escaped, but went back to her shop to rescue her money. The source stated that the flames, which followed the flow of fuel in the drainage, touched wooden bridge to her shop and as she stepped on it on getting out of the shop, the wood caved in and she fell into the drainage with the child on her back. Efforts to rescue her proved abortive, as the flames leaping out of the fuel-filled drainage scared off sympathisers. The fire from the explosion also consumed about 40 buildings, affected over 500 lock-up shops along the Iweka Road Street Market and spread to Ochanja and Menax markets.
The incident, which sparked confusion among residents and traders, reportedly occurred when the tanker laden with petrol lost control opposite Toronto Hospital Onitsha, while descending Zik Roundabout end of Onitsha- Enugu Expressway and veered off the service lane, with the fuel tanker pulling off the truck head and spilling its content, which caught fire.
Property and goods worth millions of naira were destroyed at Ochanja Market, while a commercial bank was also touched as the fire passed through New Auto Spare Parts Market, down to Iweka Road and to Emodi Street by Zik’s Avenue, burning all the shops along the road. Trading activities were halted at Upper Iweka, Ochanaja, Iweka Road to Ozomagala Street, as traders shut abruptly with the flames surging higher, as the fuel flowed down the streets. But for the intervention of youths, who climbed up three and four-storey buildings, the casualties would have been much as trapped old men, women, and children in most of the buildings were rescued before the ravaging fire caught up with them.
‘No fire station’
A resident, who spoke with Vanguard, said the fire started around 10a.m. and for the two hours the buildings were on fire, there was no fire-fighter around. The resident added that none of the markets in Onitsha had any functional fire service station, as people watched helplessly as their houses, shops, goods, and flats got burnt.
Another eyewitness, Jude Okezie, said for the resilience and courage of some youths, some elderly people including children trapped in over 10 buildings, ranging from two, three to four-storey buildings along Iweka Road towards Ochanja Market, would have burnt to death as smoke almost suffocated them before rescue came their way.
There was mild drama at the scene when the youths, chanting anti-government slogans, forced two sewage tankers taking faeces to dump sites to assist in putting out the fire, but with little success as the fire continued to blaze towards Ochanja Market. As the youths were chanting anti-government songs, a fire service vehicle, said to have come from Asaba, appeared with water, but the angry youths, thinking it was from Anambra State, started throwing stones at it, destroying the windscreens, making the driver and two occupants return to their base.
The crowd became uncontrollable as efforts to put out the fire manually continued with collection of water with buckets from a borehole on the street with a pastor, who owns a filling station, supplying detergents and fire extinguisher for the youths to put out the fire moving through the gutter. At press time, many youths were seen putting up spirited efforts to put out the fire, with many throwing sachets of pure water into the heart of the fire in a futile, but desperate attempt to stop the inferno.
Some of the victims at Ochanja Market, Agbo Romijus, Fabian Onah and Jude Nnamani whose goods were completely gutted by fire, told Vanguard that the fire incident took them unawares. They rained curses on men of the state fire service for not making any attempt to visit the scene with their equipment, even as at 6p.m.
According to them, they were sitting in their shops not expecting any danger when suddenly the flame burst forth in front of the shops and quickly spread into their shop from the wares displayed outside. One said: “We lost everything we have laboured for in life. We are finished and no hope to overcome this incident.”
Jude Nnamani, who was weeping uncontrollably, said: “All my goods were gutted by the fire. We are passionately appealing to Governor Willie Obiano to kindly come to our rescue because we have families and dependents and now we have no other hope.” There is fear that more human casualties may be recorded following the number of buildings affected and their proximity to each other along the Iweka Road, leading to Ochanja Market.
Chibuike John Nebeokike
For: Radio Biafra Media