By Dennis Udoma and Chioma Onuegbu
Tragedy struck in the least anticipated place, yesterday, Reigners Bible Ministry, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State capital, after the church building collapsed during a service.
Conflicting accounts put the death toll at between 50 and 200 while Governor Udom Emmanuel, who was present when the incident occurred, survived.
Meanwhile, no fewer than two of Udom’s commissioners and another aide were said to have been seriously injured.
An unconfirmed report said one of the aides died.
Journalists were also said to be among the victims.
Eye witnesses said the building, under construction, collapsed around 11 am, about 30 minutes into the programme to enthrone the church founder, Apostle Akan Weeks, as bishop. Weeks, it was learnt, escaped unhurt.
Udom, in a statement, commiserated with the families of victims of the church building collapse, adding that he personally supervised rescue operations after the incident.
The rescue operations, led by the state Commissioner for Works, Mr Ephraim Inyang-Eyan, were on-going at press time.
An eye witness said: “I saw Apostle Weeks, Governor Emmanuel and other officials escape through the vestry, while the roof fell on some of the people,who did not know what happened”.
Another eye witness stated: “When we were about taking offering, 30 minutes after the governor came in, the building caved in. Security operatives took him away”.
Government House, Uyo correspondent of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Uyo, Mr Uko Ima, who also survived the tragedy, narrated that a loud sound from the roof of the church building proceeded the collapse.
“Within seconds after the loud sound, the roof caved in and trapped scores of the worshippers”, Ima stated.
The journalist, who is a member of the church, explained that two of his kids sustained serious injuries in the building collapse and one of them, David, 2, was admitted at St. Luke Hospital, Annua while Benita, 5, was receiving treatment at the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital (UUTH), Uyo.
Miss Uduak Effiong, also an eye witness, said a female victim’s bowel was ripped open by the tragedy.
Effiong, who is a communication arts student of the University of Uyo, said she lost three friends to the incident.
One of the governor’s aides, Mr. Aniekeme Finbarr Ukpong, who moderated the event at the church service, thanked God for saving his life.
“I thank God for saving me. I also thank those who called to check upon me. I was the moderator at the service and I am beyond being grateful to God’’, Ukpong said.
A statement by the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr. Ekerete Udoh, appealed for calm and prayers for the injured as the situation was being reviewed.
The statement read, ‘‘Government of Akwa Ibom State wishes to commiserate with the families of those affected by the collapse this afternoon, of a church building along Uyo Village road.
‘‘His Excellency, the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Udom Emmanuel was present at the church service during the incident and thereafter personally supervised rescue operations and the evacuation of the injured to the hospital. He has directed that the full resources of the State Government be made available for the treatment of those who were injured in the unfortunate incident.
‘‘A high-powered panel of enquiry is being constituted to ascertain the immediate and remote factors leading to the collapse of the church building with a view to forestall the re-occurrence of any such incident and bring to book any persons found to have compromised professional standards in the construction of the building.
‘‘In the meantime, the Government of Akwa Ibom State is appealing to all citizens of the state to remain calm and pray for those injured while avoiding undue speculation as the situation is being given the best possible attention’’.
When our correspondents visited the scene of the tragedy, last night, security operatives had cordoned off the entire area while trying to rescue those trapped in the debris.
Akwa Ibom State Police Public Relation Officer, ASP Cordelia Nwawe, said that she could not confirm the casualty figure since rescue operations were ongoing.
She said that security operatives had been drafted to maintain law and order at the scene and prevent hoodlums from cashing-in on the situation.
“Rescue team members are doing their best to rescue all the victims trapped at the collapsed building.
‘’We cannot tell you the exact number of casualties now as the rescue operations are on,’’ she said.
The rescue team at scene is made up of workers of Julius Berger Construction Company, the police, army, Fire Service, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, Nigerian Medical Association and the Federal Road Safety Corps.