By Chidi Nkwopara
The news started flying like a fairy tale, Sunday, July 8, 2012. A whole family had perished in very mysterious circumstances after burying their aged mother! Before anybody knew it, the home of Paschal Njoku of Umuakuru, Emekuku, Owerri North local government area of Imo State had become a Mecca of sorts. Many people jettisoned the Sunday services to find out the truth or otherwise of the news.
There was palpable confusion in the community when Saturday Vanguard raced to the scene at about 8.30am. People were seen in groups discussing and bemoaning the tragedy. Others, especially friends and extended relations of the deceased family, wept bitterly, following the unexplained death of the nine persons in their sleep.
Seven of the dead were clustered in one room while the lifeless bodies of the first daughter of the Njoku family and another unidentified woman were found in the second room. In all of the cases, foam was either clearly visible on their mouths or traces of emission close to their mouths.
Saturday Vanguard investigations revealed that the nine dead persons, including the only son of the family, Paschal Njoku, his wife, Juliana and their five children, were home to bury their mother, Felicia Njoku on Saturday, but none survived to tell the story the next day.
Narrating what she could remember to Saturday Vanguard at the scene of the ugly incident, the second daughter of the family, Kate, gave the names of the deceased citizens as Paschal Njoku, Mrs. Juliana Njoku, Ebere Njoku, Jackline Njoku, Ifunanya Njoku, Uchechi Njoku and Chy-boy Njoku.
While saying that Mrs. Christiana Uba and one of her unidentified friends that accompanied her to the funeral died in the incident, Kate also lamented that villagers only woke up Sunday morning to behold a morbid spectacle.
Speaking also, an inlaw to the Njokus, Mr. Ogbonna Awuzie, recalled with grief that Paschal and members of his family went on self exile to Umuodu village, Owerri municipal because of what he termed “the persistent threat to their lives by one of their relations” (names withheld).
“Paschal and members of his family were given sanctuary in Umuodu, Owerri, in the past one year due to serious threat to his life and property. He only went home to bury his mother last Saturday and by Sunday morning we were told that they all died in very mysterious circumstances”, Awuzie recounted with grief.
The Commissioner for Health, Dr. Joe Obi-Njoku, who spoke to Saturday Vanguard at the scene, described the incident as “a huge loss and indeed a calamity but I have advised that a post mortem examination be carried out to ascertain the cause of death”.
The situation however became fully charged when a truck load of youths from yet to be identified town stormed the rural Umuakuru village, started shooting into the air and smashed the windscreens of some cars parked at the scene.
The policemen from Owerri North Police Division, who came to the scene in three patrol vans, quickly beat a retreat on sighting the angry youths. Some sympathizers lost valuable personal effects in their bid to scamper for safety. Mr. Chinazo Ilechukwu and Chief Jude Ajaero, both of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, FRCN, and our Correspondent did the race of their lives.
Chief Ajaero, a native of the area, had no serious problem getting into the safety of his family home but Mr. Ilechukwu tumbled and fell a couple of times in the bush, as well as lost a few of his personal effects, including his bible, while trying to escape from the invading angry youths. The remains of the dead were still lying in the rooms at about 11.30am when Saturday Vanguard left Umuakuru, Emekuku.
Apparently alarmed by the tragedy that befell the Paschal Njoku family, Imo State Government set up a five-man medical team to critically investigate the cause(s) of deaths of the unfortunate citizens. Announcing this development during a press briefing in Owerri, the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Joe Obi-Njoku, reasoned that death is a natural phenomenon but it cannot be natural when nine people die at a time.
“The state government was giving the ugly incident a high level of concern. What many people do not know is that one of the dead women was seven months pregnant. What this means is that we ought to be saying that 10 people died in the ugly incident”, the Commissioner said.
Dr. Obi-Njoku who disclosed that the committee is headed by the Director of Public Health, Dr. John Ihebereme, said the committee will among others work closely with the police, State Security Service and pathologists in the Federal Medical Centre, Owerri.
According to him, the bodies presented a very ugly spectacle to behold, stressing that government was eager to find out the true cause of death. “Government is aware of some stories making the rounds in the state. Death is a natural phenomenon but it cannot be natural when nine people died at a go and in bizarre circumstances”, Obi-Njoku said.
It was the considered opinion of the Commissioner that “there will be a full scale autopsy to ascertain the cause(s) of death and government expects Imo people to remain calm until we get to the root of the sad incident”. On whether government would underwrite the burial expenses of the deceased citizens, the Commissioner said, “our major attention now is to ascertain the cause of death and thereafter, we will think of how to dispose their bodies”.
Meanwhile, Governor Rochas Okorocha paid an unscheduled visit to the home of the Njokus where he equally promised that the law would take its full course if any person or group is linked with the disaster. Okorocha equally ordered full investigation to unravel the circumstances behind the mysterious death of members of the family.
He expressed deep shock over the ugly incident and commiserated with the community and the extended families of the Njokus saying: “My visit to the family compound is to demonstrate the deep concern of government and the good people of the state over the tragedy”.
While the bodies of the victims have been deposited in the Holy Rosary Hospital morgue, Emekuku for preservation, the world is awaiting the outcome of the proposed post mortem that would be conducted on bodies of the family members.