*Mass burial for victims burnt beyond recognition
By Samuel Oyadongha, Yenagoa
February 14, 2015 is a day Bayelsans will not forget in a hurry. It was supposed to be a day of celebration of love being the Valentine’s Day, but it turned out to be a black Saturday. On that day, 11 prominent daughters of the state were cut down in their prime in a road accident near the old Ahoada Market Road, along the East-West Road axis of Rivers State.
The deceased women, most of whom were members of the group, Women for Change Initiatives, and members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), were returning to Yenagoa after a private visit to the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, at her Okrika country home, Rivers State.
According to a report from the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), issued by the Bayelsa Commander, Vincent Jack, 29 passengers, in three separate vehicles, were involved in the accident.
18 persons were reported injured and 11 others burnt beyond recognition.
The three vehicle involved were identified as a Toyota Hiace bus marked GBB 591 FS, Toyota Sienna marked ABU 640 AE and Toyota Highlander marked YEN 371 RJ.
The FRSC attributed the cause of the accident to tyre burst. “The injured were taken to Madonna Hospital in Elele by the police who first came to the scene. The corpse of one dead woman was deposited at Depdem Mortuary in Ahoada while police took another corpse to Rumuji. Nine others were burnt beyond recognition,”it said.
Among those who lost their lives in the road accident were a former member of the state House of Assembly from Brass local government area and, former Special Adviser to Governor Seriake Dickson on Women Mobilisation, known for her golden voice, Mrs Ruby Benjamin; a former Permanent Secretary, Mrs Acha Perekalama; a former Commissioner for Women Affairs under the Timipre Sylva administration, Hon Gimbra Pamowei; wife of the
Secretary to the State Government, Mrs Alison Oguru; Mrs Ayakpo Otolo; Elizabeth Nisakpo, a woman leader from Otuoke community in Ogbia council area; Mrs Consider Amadi; Mrs Clara Abila; and one Kelechi, the driver of the ill-fated Toyota Hiace bus.
The only survivor in the bus conveying the Bayelsa women, Mrs Ebisinte Ayabowei, a former caretaker chairperson, Yenagoa council area who, though sustained serious injuries, is recuperating in hospital.
One week after the tragic accident, sympathisers are still trooping to the homes of the bereaved families to express their sympathy just as the state government declared a three-day mourning for the departed amazons and flag flown at half-mast across the state.
Husband to one of the deceased, Mr. Matthew Otolo, a staff of the state owned broadcasting corporation Glory FM, was a sorry sight when Sunday Vanguard visited his Azikoro Road residence, in the Ekeki suburb of Yenagoa. On several occasions, he tried to compose himself while relieving his last moment with his beloved wife, Ayakpo, but his emotion took a better part of him as broke down in tears. “Where do I start from? We agreed not to leave each until after 90 years,” he said, shaking his head and looking at the portrait of his wife, the mother of his six children.
Matthew, said to have been stopped from committing suicide by sympathisers, told Sunday Vanguard that the call for the fateful trip to greet the wife of the President, Dame Patience Jonathan, came at about 6am on Wednesday.
He said, “When she finished receiving the call, I asked her who was on the phone and she replied that it was one of the women leaders. She said they wanted them to visit the First Lady in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. My spirit rejected the call immediately and I told her my feeling.”
The bereaved husband described the deceased as a partner and mother, saying he allowed her go when she convinced him that she would return early.
“She left on Wednesday. We were calling one another at every opportunity. She told me that they had decided to wait and see off the First Lady to the airport for her trip to Abuja. I even sent her some clothes to change the one she wore when she left.”
According to him, he received the news of the tragic accident at about 6pm. “I was in shock and collapsed .I called her number severally but no answer. I had the hope that she did not die. I can’t imagine what pain she and others went through in the fire. Can you imagine, there is no way for me to identify my wife? We agreed not to leave each other until we are 90years old. My pillar is gone, where do I start from. How do I stay alone in this big house,” he sobbed.
The air of pain and sorrow also pervaded the homes of other bereaved families visited where condolence registers were opened and sympathisers seen commiserating with the families.
At the Benjamins’ residence, Dame Jonathan, in the condolence register, described the deceased Ruby Benjamin as “a dependable friend who impacted positively on our vision and mission to uplift the standard of living of the Nigerian women.”
The deceased eldest son, Barrister Ambrose Ayebakuro, told Sunday Vanguard that he was still with his CV his mother asked him to prepare for employment.
‘Everything went black’
Reliving his last moment with his mother, he said, “We were having issues with some persons over land before she travelled. And I assured her that when she returned, we will find a way to settle the issues amicably. She kept calling about the issues but I kept assuring her. Later, I was not picking her call because I thought it was on the issues. And some other numbers started calling me.
“At about 6pm, I got a call and picked it. That was the day everything around me went black. I was told about the accident. I rushed to the road and we drove towards the scene hoping that she would be alive. Some eyewitnesses at the scene said some good Samaritans had taken away burnt bodies of the victims. I still had hope that she would be alive.
“But by Sunday morning it became clear that my mom was gone. And I took solace in the fact that she was close to God. And before she left, she asked me to prepare my curriculum vitae. When she called me on Thursday and Friday, she was apologetic that she had not asked me to send the CV to her. I am still waiting with the CV.”
The members of Bayelsa State chapter of the Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria (TAN), led by the former Deputy Governor of the State, Hon. Werinipre Seibarugu, were early callers to the bereaved families in the state capital.
Governor Seriake Dickson expressed deep pains, shock and grief over the incident, describing it as tragic, monumental and painful loss to the state. According to him, the women who lost their lives in the accident were mothers and sisters.
Dickson prayed God to grant the bereaved families the courage to bear the irreparable losses.
All official engagements of the governor were suspended for three days as a mark of honour for the souls of the departed women.
The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) worldwide expressed shock and disbelief over the death of the women saying, “It is shocking to lose about 11 women to the cold hands of death in one swoop”.
‘Friends and sisters’
Dame Patience Jonathan, also commiserated with the families of the deceased and prayed with the family for God to be with them in the time of grief and asked God to give everyone, including herself the fortitude to bear the loss.
She described the women as her friends and sisters.
Dame Jonathan, who made a surprised appearance in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, took turns to visit each of the families and commiserated with them over the loss of their loved ones.
The visibly sad First Lady, clad in black attire, was accompanied on the visit by the wife of the first civilian governor of the state, Mrs. Margaret Alamieyeseigha; for the state transport commissioner, Mrs Marie Ebikake; and a former Special Adviser to Governor Seriake Dickson on Special Projects, Mrs Remi Kuku, among others.
Dickson also paid his condolence visit to the home of the Secretary to State Government, Prof. Edmund Alison-Oguru, over the death of his wife, Elizabeth.
The governor, who described the incident as tragic, said the news of the untimely death of the women came to him as a rude shock.
The members of the state House of Assembly, led by the Speaker, Hon. Konbowei Benson, described the death as a heartache that no one could heal, adding that only God has the capacity to console the bereaved.
The only female member of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly, Hon. (Mrs) Agatha Goma, representing Ekeremor Constituency I, whose sister, Hon. Gimbra Pamowei, was one of the victim said the pain of the untimely death of the women is immeasurable.
There are indications that the victims may be given mass burial since they were burnt beyond recognition.
Sunday Vanguard learnt that the remains of the deceased and two unidentified skulls were conveyed to the morgue of the Federal Medical Centre, Yenagoa by a team led by a former Deputy Governor of the state, Seibarugu.
The decision for mass burial, a source close to family of one of the victims told Sunday Vanguard, was reached following the advice of a pathologist.
According to the source, “the pathologist made it clear that conducting a deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, test will take up to six months to one year but this the families considered too long to bear.”
The husband to one of the victims, Otolo, said that the families could not identify their loved ones.
“I could not believe that I cannot identify my beloved wife.”
Also speaking, Mr. Ambrose Ayebakuro, son of the deceased former House of Assembly member, Hon. Ruby Benjamin, confirmed that the family had been contacted that his mother and others would be given mass burial.
“She was everything to us. But I take solace in the fact that she was close to God,” he said.