Survivors and victims of the Onitsha fire disaster are still counting their losses as they recount the tragedy of Wednesday afternoon that brought sorrow to the commercial hub of Anambra State.
The conflagration was ignited when a tanker laden with fuel fell into a gutter, spilt its content and exploded. The accident happened at the MCC Bus Stop near Toronto Hospital, Upper-Iweka Onitsha, where the fuel emptied into the drainages trailed by a moving fire that consumed many houses, plazas and shops along Iweka road before it engulfed parts of Ochanja market, where it destroyed goods and properties worth one billion naira.
Saturday Sun gathered that a woman (identified as Ifeoma Obi) and her child fell into the big gutter at Ochanja First Gate while trying to escape and were completely roasted. Another victim, a wealthy trader in Ochanja by Zik Avenue had reportedly gone back to his shop to collect some undisclosed amount of money he kept in the shop while the fire was raging and was subsequently trapped by the inferno. The victim reportedly had seven shops and warehouse stocked with electrical materials in one of the plazas that were gutted by fire. His wife who also owned a shop in the same plaza was reportedly not around when the tragedy occurred.
One of the survivors, Okwudili Olisa, who claimed to have lost N1million worth of goods to the inferno told Saturday Sun: “I was offloading the goods I bought in front of my shop and all of a sudden I saw people running shouting fire, fire, fire. Before I knew what was happening, my shirt was on fire. I left the goods and ran towards the mud water on the road and jumped into it and quickly pulled off my shirt and the water stopped the fire from burning me.
“Then I looked at the shop, the entire plaza was on fire and both the goods I brought in and the ones in my shop were burnt to ashes. To cap it all, the fire also destroyed my goods packed behind the plaza.”
He was full of lamentation, wailing, “I have lost everything I had to the fire.”
Full details of the casualties are yet to be ascertained. However, a neighbour to Mrs Ifeoma Obi (the woman who died with her child in the fire) described her as a hardworking woman who stayed about 16 years before she conceived and gave birth to the daughter that she died along with in the disaster.
The late Ifeoma Obi, according to Chief Chukwuka Okeke, was a carpet dealer, a business she did for several years even as a spinster. She was the manager in her brother’s shop and continued working in that capacity even after getting married until the fire disaster killed her and her child, he ascertained.
“She was in my shop before the fire came. I didn’t know whether she wanted to collect something inside the shop. But as she wanted to escape, she marched on the wooden pavement to cross the gutter without knowing that fire had heated the plank. She fell inside the gutter with the child and was roasted by the fire,” he recounted.
Disclosing that the victim hailed from Urum in Awka but married to a husband from Awka-Etiti, Okeke said of her: “The woman married in 2003 but couldn’t conceive until early this year when she gave birth to the child. It is a painful death; a big tragedy.”
One of the victims, Chief Uche Moore, who lost two shops to the inferno at Udaegbe Plaza, claimed a loss of over N15million.
“I did not remove anything from my two shops,” he said, urging traders and market leaders not to wait for anybody to provide fire fighting equipment “but should ensure that each line of the market has fire extinguisher to fight fire in a situation like that, than to wait for the fire service”.
Two other victims, Chidubem Ibe and Tochukwu Ubadiagha told Saturday Sun they lost N600, 000 and N300, 000 respectively to the inferno.
“I don’t have anything again to start a business. I need help from government and friends to start life again,” Ibe wailed.
President of Ochanja Central Market, Chief Nelson Ojukwu who called the incident a huge disaster avowed that all the electrical, electronics, phones accessories and rubber footwear business lines along the Zik’s Avenue were completely razed.
“The shops affected are too many that I cannot ascertain now until we count them,” he said. “Some of those who sell on tables and attachment were affected.”
Meanwhile, the senator representing Anambra North, Princess Stella Oduah has promised to donate three fire-fighting trucks to the Federal Fire Service in Onitsha and also offered to pay the bills of those who sustained injuries and are receiving treatment at two designated hospitals.
“It goes without saying that no market should exist without a functional fire fighting equipment, steady water supply and a well-trained and motivated fire fighting service, ready to deploy at the shortest possible time and the authorities must ensure that preventable incidents like this never rear their ugly heads again,” Senator Oduah said in a statement.
Similarly, Hon. Lynda Ikpeazu, representing Onitsha North and South Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives also averred: “What will it take Anambra state Government to provide functional fire fighting equipment for our communities? During the last DMGS roundabout, the governor promised to do the needful but the Ochanja fire incident has shown otherwise.”
Governor Willie Obiano who visited the scene of the fire at Upper Iweka promised to compensate the affected traders before Christmas.
He expressed sadness over the unfortunate incident and assured that a panel of inquiry that was swiftly set up, shall commence immediate work to ascertain the number of shops affected, and their owners in a bid to compensate them. He also assured that the government would provide the fire service equipment around the Upper Iweka axis.