By JIMITOTA ONOYUME, Port Harcourt
THEY did not see it coming. All they wanted was to beat the heavy traffic on the deplorable Rumuolumeni Road. Because of the bad state of the road, vehicles sometimes could be trapped at a spot for close to an hour. Peak periods on the road are in the mornings when workers and students go out and in the evenings when they are on their way back home.
It was already peak period on the road that ill-fated Tuesday night December 13, hence the passengers wanted to avoid any long wait in traffic. That was why they went for the river. They had no premonition of what was lurking at the corner for them.
At about 8.30 pm most of them were already at what could pass as a make shift jetty to board the long wooden boat which could take as much as thirty persons. It probably was the last trip for the boat driver that night so all the passengers on ground wanted to be accommodated. It was not clear if the boat was overloaded.
It is barely about ten minutes boat ride from Eagle Island where they boarded, to their destination. And they were almost there when the unforeseen occurred, the wooden boat capsized. According to eye witnesses most of the passengers battled against death in the water but may be due to factors like lack of good swimming skills, many of them could not survive.
Relatives and friends of passengers in the boat wailed all night searching for their loved ones. Men of the marine unit of the Rivers state Police command, Navy and local divers made frantic effort combing the water for the passengers. Fourteen persons were reportedly rescued.
The initial fear at a point that night was that about forty five persons had died in the boat mishap; this probably was because they could not find their bodies. But by the following day, most of the corpses started floating and with some level of ease they recovered about thirty of them.
It is not clear if a corps member who was in the boat, Mrs Neebari Samuel Bema was among those that drowned because at press time her body had not been recovered. She reportedly wedded about three months ago to Mr Kpegele Samuel Bema. The husband was wailing that evening and frantically urging those around to assist in the search for his missing wife.
On its part, the Rivers state Police Command said twenty six corpses were recovered by their search and rescue team. The state Police Public Relations Officer, Deputy Superintendent of Police, DSP Ben Ugugbulam told Vanguard Metro that one of the deceased was a pregnant lady, adding that search and rescue operation was still on at the time he spoke being the next day.
His words, “Update on Mgbuoduhia water front boat mishap. As at 11.45 today 15 12.11, 26 bodies including that of a six year old girl found this morning have been recovered by the search and rescue team”
The Police had initially said that only two persons died in the incident but eye witnesses put the death toll at over twenty then.
Chairman Rumuolumeni Community Development Committee, CDC, Mr Amadi Chima said relatives of most of the victims later approached the community to allow them bury the deceased by the side of the river since their tradition forbade such corpses being buried outside the river they drowned. He further explained that none of the deceased was from his Rumuolumeni area, noting that they were strangers.
“Most of the people who died were strangers. So it will be difficult tracing their family members. We allowed their people to bury them by the river side before you came. They came to beg that they should bury them by the river side, since their culture forbid them being moved to other places”, he said.
Amadi blamed the deplorable state of the Rumuolumeni road for the boat mishap, adding that the state government should commence rehabilitation work on it. He said the area voted massively for the governor in the last election. “We were not in the opposition. We gave the governor our votes in the last election. He should please commence work on the road”.
Meantime, the Rivers state government has commiserated with the Rumuolumeni community. The governor who spoke through his Commissioner for Health Dr Samson Parker at the palace of the Nyenweli of Rumuolumeni, HRH Eze Ndubueze Wobo Olumeni JP after a visit to the scene of the sad incident, assured that the government would take steps to guard against such occurrence in the future, “In such a sad incident, a lot of lives have been lost, both men, women and children in the unfortunate boat mishap.
I have been to the site and I am just coming from there, it is not something anybody can do to remove the deep pains that may be going through your heart and the families who have lost their loved ones”, he said.
While condoling families of those who lost their loved ones in the sad incident, the governor thanked members of the community that assisted in the rescue operation.
The monarch on his part enjoined the government to provide more speed boats to ply the water route.
Meantime, Chief Press Secretary to the governor, Mr David Iyofor said the Ministry of Works opened bid for the construction of the road before the Tuesday incident. According to him, the road was top on the government’s programme this dry season. He said maintenance work had also been carried out on the road ahead of the major construction work. He appealed to residents of the area to use the road more as it had become passable.
“The information I have from the Ministry of Works is that the bids for the reconstruction of the road was opened on Monday and the Ministry of Works is moving quickly to select a contractor to do the road. Once that is done, government will ensure that the road is properly fixed,”
The Rumuolumeni road is a major one in Obio Akpor local government area where the Minister of State for Education hails from. It is also a major access route to Saipem, Navy Pathfinder and a few other public centers.