On Thursday, December 10, it will be exactly 10 years since the Loyola Jesuit College community was struck by a tragedy of immense proportions. 60 of our students perished in Nigeria’s worst air crash. Some of the students were in year 7(JS1) while some others were in their last year of high school. Naturally, they were all happy to go home to celebrate Christmas. And their families were waiting to receive them with joy. But everything turned into a long, debilitating grief with the plane crash.
Some of the students had siblings in the same plane—some had two siblings; some had one. The tragedy was colossal as some families were totally wiped out.
Traumatic as it was for the families that lost their children in the flight, the tragedy also exposed the ineptitude, the poor state of the emergency response strategies and the lack of care for Nigerian lives. First, there was no water to put out the fire of the burning plane and then there was no quick emergency response. Even Kechi Okwuchi, who survived the horror, needed to be flown to South Africa because the Nigerian hospital she was taken to was not equipped enough to deal with her injuries. And the air-ambulance that flew her to Johannesburg was brought into Port Harcourt from South Africa!
It was a monumental tragedy for the college not only because the 60 students represented about ten percent of the total student population but also because those students were some of the best brains and the most talented in the country. From whatever sphere you looked at it, it was devastating. The crash caused despair in many hearts. But there was also a determination to ensure that evil did not triumph; that something good came out of a dreadful event.
At the height of the staggering shock, gruesome sorrow and immense losses, there was also an outpouring of commiseration and support. The whole world stood still, identifying with us in our moment of sorrow and pain. Nigerians from all walks of life came out in solidarity with the grieving families, Loyola Jesuit College and the nation. There were solidarity and condolence visits. President Olusegun Obasanjo, accompanied by the then Education Minister, Mrs. Chinwe Obaji; Aviation Minister, Prof. Babalola Borishade; as well as Prof. Jerry Gana, visited the college to condole with the school authority.
Mothers, including many parents of LJC students, protested in Lagos and Abuja, demanding changes in aviation, education and health care systems. Perhaps, the most powerful demonstration of solidarity came from the bereaved parents themselves who visited one another and participated actively in the funerals of the children. Amazingly, they showed unimaginable depth of faith and strength in a most depressing moment for any parent.
President Obasanjo called a meeting of the stakeholders in the aviation industry. Everyone and every agency involved in aviation and responsible for safety of lives were summoned to the meeting. This meeting and several others by stake-holders in the industry produced several assurances and promises. One of the promises was in line with J’amais encore!—Never again! Both in public and in private, promises that this crash must not happen again were palpable. There were calls for urgent reforms not only in the aviation industry but also in the Fire Service and Emergency and Rescue Services.
The assurances and promises gave everyone a sense of relief and hope; relief because the problems were identified so that necessary steps could be taken to address the causes of the crash and poor emergency services and hope that such carnage would not happen again. There were still other promises. The college, its students, the bereaved parents (who had formed a support group called “1012 Parents”) and the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) of the college promised to always remember the 60 students and to work towards realizing their dreams to make Nigeria better. Solidarity, commiseration and promises helped mourners to assuage the despair.
‘Has anything changed?’
However, as the plans for the tenth memorial anniversary of the 60 students got underway recently, one of my students sought to ascertain if the promises made after the crash to ensure safer skies have been fulfilled. He asked, “Father, has anything changed in the aviation industry and emergency agencies after ten years?” Well, I asked him to go and find out for himself. Through the Concerned Students Club of the college (a club that was formed by students following the crash to reflect on the issues that affect the nation), he along with his peers visited the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (F.A.A.N.) and the Fire Service as well as other related agencies. They interviewed the officials of those agencies. What did they find out ten years after the crash?
Whatever they discovered as an answer to the question, the bereaved parents (the “1012 Parents”), the college community and well-meaning Nigerians have decided that whether or not things changed in those agencies, the 60 students “shall not have died in vain.” These groups continue to work to actualize that dream. Given their innocence, and to help us remember them always, we call them our angels—Our 60 Angels.
It is noteworthy that the then Governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Odili, donated some money and land on behalf of the state to the North-West Africa Province of the Society of Jesus, the owners of Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja, to establish a similar school in Port Harcourt. Governor Rotimi Amaechi, who took over from Dr. Odili, also continued the immense support from Rivers State. After moving to the third piece of property as a result of staggering problems, buildings for Jesuit Memorial College (JMC) and a non-fee paying primary school for the villagers started on a 21-hectare of land in Mbodo and Elikpokwu-Odu, Aluu.
Despite a long period of struggles and problems—paucity of funds, confounding community issues—associated with establishing a college that would not compromise on the standards of excellence for which Loyola Jesuit College is globally renown, Jesuit Memorial College opened its gates to its pioneer students on October 17, 2013. The Loyola Academy, the primary school section, opened its gates a year later. The message is simple: While the crash brought despair to many hearts, the establishment of Jesuit Memorial College has brought hope that our students “shall not have died in vain”—that something good will come out of a horrible experience.
Appropriately, therefore, the motto for the new college is “Hope Reborn.” Hope that those who go through the Jesuit education offered by JMC will make Nigeria a better country, the dream of our 60 Angels. Fittingly, too, the mythical phoenix bird, the mascot of the new college, symbolically depicts hope rising from despair and immortality rising from mortality, as it is in “the Parable of the Phoenix”.
Before October 17, 2013, however, the college has always remembered its 60 Angels. In Loyola Jesuit College itself, through the generosity of some parents and benefactors, a Memorial Hall was built. The same desire to ensure that the students “shall not have died in vain,” spurred the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), led by Mrs. Ochuko Momoh, to go on a fund-raising drive to build five blocks of 60 flats for the staff of Loyola Jesuit College. On November 29, 2015, one block out of the five blocks was commissioned. Hopefully, the effort of Mrs. Momoh, her team and generous donors will help to complete the other four blocks of flats.
However, we also know that immortalizing the 60 Angels should not only be on brick and mortar. It is also by remembering their virtues. Memorial events in their honour have held since 2005. Memorial Masses in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja, candle-light procession in Abuja and advocacy for safer skies in Lagos have held every year. The Loyola Union (LU: made up of 60 students and staff of the college) has organized an annual memorial drama since 2007. The event has brought out the best artistry in our students who act the dramas and it has helped them to reflect the talents of some of those 60 students. The hard work and the sacrifices required by these dramas help student-actors to perfect these virtues that are needed to work for a better Nigeria—the dream of our angels.
Come December 10, 2015, we will as always remember our 60 Angels on this tenth anniversary of their death. We will again have our candle-light procession. But this time it will be at the Port Harcourt International Airport where the accident happened. We will unveil the monument in Jesuit Memorial College in their honour and lay the foundation stone for the boys’ hostel in Jesuit Memorial College. We will also be celebrating Kechi Okwuchi, the survivor of the crash, who is expected in the country to be part of these events. We will be celebrating her miraculous survival and resilience.
Our goal during this tenth anniversary is to let the world know that we remember our 60 students and the circumstances that led to their death. We want to remind all Nigerians that we are a people who never forget. In always remembering our angels through these activities and events, we will be remembering our promises of “J’amais encore!” And “they shall not have died in vain!” We will also be remembering the “Parable of the Phoenix” by Yacov Azriel and the epitaph written above the pictures of our beloved 60 students in the Memorial Hall of the college, taken from William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’:
Remember not the pathos
of our plight
Or the tears of our too-
Mourn us not, for we became a light,
Eden shining still through deathless night,
On all who first pure love would comprehend.
- Father Emmanuel Ugwejeh, SJ is the President, Loyola Jesuit College