With the tragic loss of lives following the collapse of a seven-storey building under construction along Woji Road in New GRA, Port Harcourt on Friday, November 23, 2018, Rivers State governor, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, set up a five-man judicial commission of inquiry into the incident. In this report, ANAYO ONUKWUGHA (Port Harcourt) writes on the findings of the commission so far.
Inaugurating the commission, led by Justice Adolphus Enebeli, at Government House, Port Harcourt, Governor Wike charged members of the committee to identify the owner of the building and the holder of the certificate of occupancy.
He asked them to also ascertain the developer and/or holder of the certificate of occupancy over and in respect of all the piece or parcel of land situated and lying at 119 Woji Road, (Plot 80), GRA Phase 2, Port Harcourt.
“Ascertain whether the construction of the seven-storey building on the said 119 Woji Road is covered by any valid or approved building plan and/or whether requisite approvals were issued by the appropriate ministry or agency of the Rivers State government prior to the commencement of construction.”
Wike had also charged the commission of inquiry to ascertain whether competent and licensed experts in the relevant fields undertook the architectural, engineering and structural designs of the said building.
He further charged the commission to ascertain whether appropriate/necessary tests including soil tests were carried out to ascertain the suitability of the site for construction of a building of that height.
The judicial commission of Inquiry was also charged with the responsibility of finding out the quality of materials used as well as to ascertain the number of persons that were killed or injured and the identities of such persons.
After series of postponements, the commission of Inquiry finally held its inaugural sitting at the Rivers State Judiciary Complex, Port Harcourt.
Appearing before the commission, the former commissioner for Urban Development and Physical Planning, Dr Reason Onya, admitted that the ministry revalidated the 2014 approved plan for the collapsed seven-storey building following the disappearance of the file of the building plan.
Recall that Onya, had, in show of patriotism, decided to step aside from office as a member of the Rivers State Executive Council, to allow for an unhindered investigation into the remote and immediate causes of the ugly incident, which caught global attention.
The former commissioner’s letter, addressed to the Rivers State Executive Council, reads in part: “After due consultation with my family on the collapsed seven-storey hotel building under construction, I have decided to ‘step aside’ as the Honourable Commissioner for Urban Development and Physical Planning on 28/11/2018 during the State Executive Council.
“The building plan was approved on 18/7/2014 and revalidated by me on 14/9/2018, because the file was missing.
“To those that lost their loved ones, I am pained, so pained that each time I visit the site, my heart bleeds; each time I hear news of it, I am perturbed. I am sincerely sorry for all the pain you all have gone through in the cause of this issue that my official assignment is involved.”
Testifying before the panel, Onya said: “We couldn’t get the file of the approved plan for the building in the ministry. So, we had to revalidate the approved plan in 2018 following requests from the developer.
“We suspect that the movement of the ministry from Moscow Road to State Secretariat could have led to the disappearance of the file.”
He stated that the plan of the building was duly registered in the Ministry of Urban Development and Physical Planning.
In his testimony before the commission, the commissioner for Health, Professor Princewill Chike, said a total of 17 persons died in the collapsed building, pointing out that out of the number, only eight corpses could be identified by their relatives.
Chike stated that 12 of the corpses were deposited at the Ashes To Ashes Mortuary of the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital, Port Harcourt, while three others were deposited at the morgue of the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH).
He said two corpses were deposited at Kpaima, a privately owned mortuary in Port Harcourt, adding that one of the corpses at Kpaima Mortuary, has been retrieved and buried by his relatives.
The commissioner stated that a total of 31 persons, including a female were rescued alive from the collapsed building, saying that almost all the victims had been discharged from the hospitals.
On his part, commissioner for Special Duties, Dr John Bazia, told the commission of Inquiry that the tragedy occurred because 700 bags of cement were stacked on one of the floors of the structure.
Bazia explained to the five-man panel established by the state government that the weight of the bags of cement on the second floor of the building that was still under construction might have made it to cave in.
The commissioner stated that his source of information was reliable, adding that a worker on the site informed him about the bags of cement that were stored in the building.
“I was informed by one of the workers on the site that 700 bags of cement were kept on the second floor. This load may have caused the collapse. It is not good to keep such load in a building that is still under construction.”
Bazia, however, noted that those who were alive were rescued, adding that most of those who were not at the basement of the building died instantly because they were on some of the floors of the structure when it collapsed.
However, some professional bodies in building construction have attributed the collapse of the seven-storey building to the use of inexperienced professionals to handle the construction of the building.
This was the position expressed by leadership of Nigeria Institute of Architecture (NIArc), the Nigeria Institution of Building (NIOB) as well as Town Planners Council of Nigeria (TPCN), who made separate presentations to the commission of inquiry.
Taking the lead on the witness box, Tamunoene Abam-Kingdom, who is the president of Nigeria Association for Engineering, Geology and Environment (NAEGE), presented a memorandum to the commission, which included all his Association’s submission.
Reading out the memorandum on behalf of his association, Abam-Kingdom said the collapse would have been totally avoidable if the right Geo-technical test was done and strictly adhered to just as he denied any link to the collapsed building.
On his part, a member of Nigeria Institution of Surveyors (NIS), Professor King Nyenke, insisted that the building collapse was caused by compromise and poor quality materials used by the owner and the team that carried out the construction work.
Nyenke, who doubles as a lecturer at the Department of Quantity Surveyors, Rivers State University, raised nine questions before the commission to determine whether the right and qualified engineers were engaged for the construction and urged the commission to ensure that the law takes it course.
In his own witness, the chairman, Nigeria Institution of Architecture, Rivers State Chapter, Architect Asumbe Egbuonu, during a cross examination identified the architect, who handled the collapsed building as a trainee who lacked the required professional skill to handle such huge building.
Egbuonu, however, faulted the claims that the design of the collapsed building was seven-storey, noting that addition of the pilling floor and basement makes the building nine floors.
The architect called on building developers to always consider involving professionals in their projects, which he said, would help save lives and property.
Also, a representative of Nigeria Town Planners Registration Council in Rivers State, Professor Opuenebo Binya-Owei, attributed the cause of the collapse to non- implementation and enforcement of Town Planners’ law, which she said, would help to marshal out an administrative frame work in terms of development.
Chairman of the commission, Justice Adolphus Enebeli, on Friday, January 4, 2019, issued a bench warrant of arrest order on one of the witnesses, Architect Amiyie Pere Dick, for failing to appear before the commission as scheduled.
Enebeli also gave one Mrs Joy Nweke, past director of Works at the Port Harcourt City Council up to Friday, January 11, 2019, to produce certain documents pertaining to the approval of the collapsed building, or face the consequences of noncompliance.
In his submission before the commission, the representative of National Council of Builders, Mr Tunde Osinubi, called for prosecution of the owner of the collapsed building, if there is no insurance cover for the structure.
Osinubi, who cited Insurance Act of 2003, Section 64, which he said made it mandatory for any building above two-storey to be insured, disowned one Emmanuel Inyang, who claimed to be a member of Nigerian Institute of Building.
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