By CHIDI NKWOPARA, Owerri
This is not the best of times for Imo State and its people given the harvest of tragedies recorded in the state recently. The most recent is the ancient ancestral tree that fell in Umudagu, Ihitte Isi Mbieri community, Mbaitoli local council area of the State late Thursday night of May 16, killing no fewer than 50 people, with a yet to be ascertained number critically injured. The tall tree known as Osisi Ukwu Uko, collapsed on buildings as well as those transacting their businesses in a market located under the tree.
Vanguard Metro, VM, gathered that the collapse of the tree followed a heavy torrential rain that was accompanied by a ferocious windstorm and thunder. The devastating rainstorm, which started at about 6pm on the fateful day, continued throughout the night and spilled over to the morning hours of Friday. It was also gathered that most of the victims were either traders, who were selling their wares in the market, their customers, some passers-by and others who were taking shelter in the town hall building and the surrounding houses.
Lamenting over the ugly incident, the former state chairman of Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Marcellinus Nlemigbo, whose ancestral home is a shouting distance away from the tragic scene said “the incident is most devastating and has thrown the entire community into deep mourning”.
Continuing, Nlemigbo said: “The tree was a symbol of the community and no living person in our community can fully narrate the history attached to the tree. The tree had always been there until yesterday (Friday night)”.
While debunking the rumour now making the rounds that the tree had fetish attachments to it, Chief Nlemigbo, however, expressed unhappiness that some elders in the community had severally resisted earlier arrangements to fell the tree. He said he was not at home when the incident occurred and was only told about it through the telephone and had to rush home to assist in evacuating the casualties.
“I am aware that the tree provided a natural canopy for people. There is also a market set up by our ancestors in the place, which was sustained till date. There is also the likelihood that some people must have run into the town hall building to take shelter. So, the casualty figure can be any person’s guess,” Chief Nlemigbo said.
An obviously angry villager who gave his name as Amarachi Obumunonye said that this disaster could have been averted and blamed the community’s elders for bluntly refusing initial plans to cut down the aged tree.
He, however, recalled with grief that when some parts of the tree were trimmed about 20 years ago, the two individuals, who were engaged to execute the job, died unexpectedly after about a week, adding that this lent credence to the belief that the gods residing in the tree had been angered.
Some villagers around the scene confirmed to VM that a middle aged mad woman had May 14, 2013, warned the traders, who usually sold their wares close to and under the tree, to relocate from the place soonest or be prepared to face the looming but unpleasant consequences.
Obviously, the villagers ignored the advice, especially as it came from a mental patient!
Most sympathisers could not help but join close relations of the dead in a chorus of wailing and lamentations the scene of the tragedy. This was while joint rescue operation from patriotic and sympathetic Umudagu youths, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC, the Fire Service, policemen and men of the State Emergency Management Agency led by the Executive Secretary, Mrs. Uche Ezeonyeasi was on to evacuate the dead and the injured, and restore a semblance of order at the place.
A lot of credit must be given to Mbieri youths who came out in their numbers, defying the uncertainties of the dark night, the devastating torrential rain, lightening and thunder, to assist their dying relations and friends.
But for the determination and patriotism of these youths, more people would have died, even as it is being speculated that the death toll may have increased in view of the severity of the injuries and the distance from the scene of the incident to the Federal Medical Centre, Owerri.
Some people willingly made their private cars available for the evacuation of the dead and injured. Some were seen giving first aid to the victims of the tragedy before they were taken to the hospital. The eventual arrival of government’s emergency team added some fillip to the efforts of the youths.
Meanwhile, the lifeless bodies of the victims, most of which are yet to be identified, were deposited in morgues, including the Federal Medical Centre, the State Specialist Hospital and Aladinma Hospital, all in Owerri.
But the tragedy is one that will haunt the villagers for a long time. The picture was gory. Human limbs scattered all over the place. Although rain water washed away the blood coming from the dying people, traces of human blood and stench can still clung to the scene.
For the people, it was a colossal loss of life and property. Their prayer is that such should never come the way Umudagu, Ihitte Isi Mbieri.