The first news, of a suicide bomber attacking a church during Sunday service was not strange or overly surprising, at least for a nation already used to bomb blasts and the attendant casualty rate. The second news, of a plane ramming into a Lagos suburb was more alarming and elicited more than the resigned “not again” that greeted the first. With social media abuzz, two things struck me: The plane crashed in Iju Agege and the proximity of my house to the scene.
While rushing to the scene on an okada, I was not expecting any miracle from the Nigerian Emergency service, but was pleasantly surprised to find several fire fighting vehicles and tankers on the road leading to the scene, and at the site proper. I was about to heave a sigh of relief in anticipation of a well-coordinated rescue effort when the sheer number of spectators hit me. From the railway track, where I was then, a wall of people, more tightly packed than sardines in a can, loomed before me. People were standing on rooftops, jostling themselves in the streets and hugging fences as they strained to catch a glimpse of the ill-fated plane and unfortunate homes.
It took a while, but I managed to force my way through the clogged streets to the scene and beheld bedlam. A young man was just then being carried out from the top floor of the two-storey building the plane ploughed into. Whether he was alive or dead was a question I couldn’t get anybody to answer. Even though there were ambulances stationed at the site, any hope of them quickly ferrying any survivor to a hospital was negated by the surging crowd.
I can’t really say what my expectations were, but the crash scene, from the approach looked like a miniature. Not like what you did expect. There was no strewn debris or (sorry) bodies. The plane had somehow managed to remain whole, even if a mangled and burning hulk.
Climbing fences and clawing my way through onlookers, I managed to take photos of the scene with my Blackberry Javelin. Trying to get as many angles as possible while decrying the fact that I forgot my midget and was without a more powerful camera. I somehow managed to reach the plane proper after several detours due to blocked access. I had cause to again be optimistic about my country’s future, as the sight of hundreds of youths battling the fire with bare hands lifted my spirit. The smoke was thick and strong, with the gentle wind doing little to disperse the choking smell of it. With each inhalation a torture of sorts, I wondered at the strength of the thousands of individuals at the scene.
The sight of hundreds of phones of all make and size held up to capture images of the wreckage reminded me all too well of the ill-fated Arab Spring. I did not have much time to dwell on the citizen journalists and what they will do with the images captured, for the dilemma of the emergency workers and the security officers demanded my attention. With the crowd effectively blocking all the routes to the site, efficient rescue operations were proving impossible.
The police, though several dozen in number, were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. As expected, attempts by the police to clear the crowd almost led to fracas between the police and the youths, who insisted that they were there to help and were doing their best before the police came. I can attest to the bravery of these youths. The fact that they are mostly jobless and heading towards nowhere is an indictment on the country’s leadership. However, there were many in the crowd that clearly came to loot and I was witness to some of the unsavoury things these ones got up to. Still, they were a very small number and the majority checked their activities.
After working my way through the crowd and using my press ID to gain entrance through the largely ineffectual police cordon, I sought a high ground from which to count the cost of the plane crash.
From within the eye of the crash, the tail of the plane jutted out, intact and largely unmarred. At one side, face down and dented, lay what looked like its engine. Of the rest of the plane, nothing but what flame and the force of impact had made unrecognisable could be seen between billowing smoke.
I am not an aviation expert, but something about the crash scene told me the pilot had fought hard to keep the plan in the air for the minute more required to get it to the runway, and perhaps safety.
I left the scene after about three hours, with night coming and rescue attempts still being hampered by the steadily increasing crowd. A few minutes before I left, a Navy helicopter had managed to land in an open space just across the street from the crash site and the police had finally managed to get the crowd to back away from the church compound, which led to the plane proper.
As I walked home against the flow of the surging crowd—perhaps from far-flung places—I mused at the state of my nation and the things we take for granted and the blame game that will result from this and concluded that Nigeria is a nation of cut and join. We are in dire need an overhaul, both physically and mentally. Prayer is not enough to make a bag of shit float in the air.
My crash site analysis and why I think the rescue attempt was ill fated even before it started
The flight path of the plane was obvious to anyone with the sense to seek for it. A coconut tree missing its crown, a clipped mango tree, a power transmission line and a flattened church building, showed the route the plane took before ploughing into its final resting place, a two-storey building and an adjacent printing press.
- There were several routes to the site, beside the unconventional fence jumping that even I had to resort to get to the crash site.
- The crowd got to the site way ahead of the police and were already dug in too deep for any proper cordoning off to have worked.
- The water tankers that followed the fire vehicles were effectively blocked by a wall of people and as such could not resupply the fire fighting vehicles.
- The ambulances teams got to the site, but suffered the fate of the water tankers.
- The police, Army, Road Safety, Civil Defence and other security services were on ground in force but, unless they resort to extreme tactics such as shooting in the air, were clearly incapable of controlling the crowd. I must add that they really tried and anyone that says different wants to be biased.
The way forward
In other not to move away from the topic, I will use bullet point for this
- The government needs to urgently review its urban development plan, with the view of creating space for water hydrants and steady water supply. This will put an end to instances when fire-fighting vehicles will need water supply from tankers.
- The suburban roads of Lagos are nonexistent. Had the roads leading to the clash site not been waterlogged mud baths, perhaps the emergency vehicles would had an easier time getting to the site.
- As a country, we need to pay more attention to human capital development. We need to refocus on education. We need to get people to understand that there are people whose job it is to take risks, as such they do not need to rush to disaster scenes.
- Monitoring of airlines appear to have again lapsed, we need to get that back to how it was a few years ago. With the news indicating that the plane that crashed had mechanical issues a few days before, somebody, whose job it is to ensure that slips like that do not happen, should be as unemployed as me right now.
Fred Chiagozie Nwonwu
June 4 2012