…Why fire fighters failed
…Traders count losses
By Vincent Ujumadu
TRADERS at the Ochanja Market, the second largest in the commercial city of Onitsha, Anambra State went up in flames on Wednesday, leaving in its trail, five persons dead, including a mother and her baby, and property worth billions of naira.
Onitsha markets had, over the years, witnessed many fire outbreaks, prompting successive administrations in the state to establish fire service stations at various points in the city.
However, the fire service, as an institution, has been very ineffective in the state, apparently because the fire outbreak had not been rampant in recent years as it used to be. At the fire service stations, it is either the trucks are grounded, or there is no water. Sometimes, the official telephones at the fire stations do not work, just as most of the offices are usually empty most of the time.
The latest Onitsha fire incident was caused by a fuel tanker filled with premium motor spirit, PMS, otherwise known as petrol. The tanker spilled its contents into the drainage at the ever busy Upper Iweka in the city and for about two hours, the liquid was flowing in the drainage until it suddenly caught fire. The resultant effect was the destruction of hundreds of shops and loss of human lives.
At the time the fire service operators eventually approached the scene, it was difficult to meander to the point of the inferno due to heavy traffic, as many vehicles were blocking the access road. This problem, coupled with the inadequacy of the fire service, proved to be a stumbling block towards fighting the fire such that the traders just watched while their goods went up in flames. It was so pathetic.
The following day, the traders rushed to the market to assess the extent of damage only for most of them to break down in tears as all they had labored for over the years, had become mere debris.
One of the victims, Mr. Chukwuka Okeke, a neighbor to the woman that died with her baby, described the fire incident as unfortunate, but avoidable. He said the fire trucks could have succeeded in putting out the fire if the roads were free.
Speaking about the late woman, Okeke said: “It was not up to twenty minutes I chatted with her before she was consumed in the inferno. We were in our shops when I got the call that there was fire incident at Upper Iweka. Though I saw smoke going up from a distance, nobody could believe it would extend to our shops.
“For over three hours, we perceived the smell of fuel from the tanker as it flowed through the drainage until the whole thing went up in flames. The woman had already rushed out of the shop with her baby, but later went back. As she was running, she suddenly slipped and fell inside the gutter which was already in flames and nobody could rescue her and her baby.”
According to Okeke, “the woman, whose husband also owns a shop in the city, had the baby early this year after 16years of marriage. She got married in 2003, but had her first baby early this year.”
Mr. Nnamdi Onyedika, a dealer on female wears and whose goods were completely burnt, told Saturday Vanguard that he made purchases from an importer and stocked his shop that morning, only for everything to be destroyed few hours later. Onyedika, who said he served his master for seven years and was settled last year, said the fire had devastated his plans in life.
“My market was doing well and I was denying myself the luxuries of life to build the business, but look at what has happened. What will I do now? I have nobody to go to and I used all my savings to beef up the stock in my shop before this fire incident,” he said.
Another trader, Mr. Obiorah Nwankwo said it was the second time his shop got burnt in Onitsha and wondered if everything was normal with him.
His words: “I used to stay at Ose Okwodu Market where I rented a shop. One day, my shop and few others were engulfed by fire after we had closed for the day. I had to do menial jobs for sometime before I could raise funds to rent another shop at Ochanja Market. With this fire and the losses, what am I going to do? I still have a young family and I don’t know how I am going to pay my children’s school fees.”
Meanwhile, Governor Willie Obiano has invited the affected traders to assemble at the Alex Ekwueme Square, Awka on Monday for documentation and possible assistance from the state government.
The governor, who visited the scene of the fire incident on Thursday, was in Onitsha to assess the situation.
Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr. Don Adinuba, in a statement on behalf of the state government said: “Governor Obiano and the entire people of Anambra State regret the unfortunate situation and His Excellency has taken steps to address the concerns of those affected.
Government therefore requests owners of properties affected by the tragic accident, shop owners and family members of deceased victims to assemble at Ekwueme Square, Awka on Monday October 21 2019 at 11am for documentation and to see how the Anambra State government can assist them.
“ A panel headed by the Deputy Governor, Dr. Nkem Okeke has been set up by the governor to immediately determine the cause of the accident, why the firemen could not put out the fire, and how the condition of the victims can be ameliorated.
“Governor Obiano and all citizens of Anambra State identify with victims of this unfortunate fire incident and the general inhabitants of Onitsha over this sad inferno. The Anambra State government will do its best to stand by those affected.
“Government therefore calls on all citizens to remain calm in the face of this disaster and be reassured of government’s commitment to the well- being of all and sundry.”
He explained that security agencies in the state had been directed to ensure that law and order was maintained within and around the affected areas.
Also speaking on the incident, former member of House of Representatives, who was also the security adviser to former Governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju, Chief Chuma Nzeribe said those in charge of the state fire service must be held responsible for the Onitsha incident.
“As security adviser to Anambra State government few years ago, I took steps to ensure there was no single fire incident in any of our major markets then
“We have an Anambra State Fire Service headed by somebody and they must be seen to do their job, otherwise somebody should be held accountable for this huge loss,” Nzwribe said.
Former secretary to the state government, SSG, Mr. Oseloka Obaze said the inferno was most regrettable. “My heart goes out to those directly and indirectly affected, especially those who lost loved ones. Precious lives and properties worth millions of Naira have been lost, and perhaps needlessly so,” Obaze said.