September 23, 2020 was a black Wednesday for residents of Kogi State; no fewer than 30 of them were feared roasted in an inferno resulting from the explosion of a fuel laden tanker at Felele, outskirts of Lokoja on the Abuja-Lokoja-Okene/Kabba expressway.
Early on the fateful day, parents and guardians had waved their kids bye and bid them Godspeed as they journeyed to their different schools. Unknowing to them it was to be their final farewell to the youngsters who hours later died in an inferno owing to the explosion which occurred from a petrol laden tanker that had an accident.
It was a tragedy of monumental magnitude for families who lost loved ones especially school children.
LEADERSHIP Weekend reports that all the 30 people allegedly involved in the accident were mostly students across nursery, primary and tertiary institutions who were off to school at about 7 o’clock on the fateful Wednesday.
For the family of Samson Ajala, a sewing machine dealer on Murtala Mohammad way in Lokoja, the capital of confluence city of Kogi State, the wailing will not stop soon. The whole family members are no more. Ajala died in the fire with his wife, sister in-law and four children.
Similarly, Amodu Haruna, a meat seller in Felele market on Abuja-Lokoja expressway who told LEADERSHIP Weekend that if the Mega Park had been put to use the carnage would have been minimal. He lost his daughter, Aisha, in the inferno.
When our correspondent visited some of the bereaved families at their homes in Lokoja, grieving parents, relations and friends wept uncontrollably for their loved ones as some managed to recount the last memories shared with the deceased.
A friend and neighbour of Ajala, Mr Sunday Umbonu, described the incident as a terrible thing better imagined than real while recalling that Samson (Jovial) Ajala was no more.
At the time of this report the charred bodies of Ajala and other members of the family involved in the inferno had not been identified. Family members are awaiting the hospital authorities to conclude the process of identification and release the bodies.
Residents who spoke with our correspondent were unequivocal in their submission that the recurring occurrence of accidents on the very side of the expressway in Felele expressway called for serious concern while asking the federal and state governments to act fast before another one occurred.
President Muhammadu Buhari and Kogi State governor, Alhaji Yahaya Bello, expressed shock and sorrow over the accident involving a petrol tanker, which killed no fewer than 30 persons, including five students of Kogi State Polytechnic and three children with the deceased father, Samson and wife Patience Ajala in Felele along Lokoja-Abuja highway.
According to President Buhari, the accident “represents another disturbing and saddening incident in the litany of tragedies that have befallen our country.” He said he was worried by the degree of the explosion which claimed the lives of travellers, school children and bystanders, including some students of Kogi State Polytechnic.
“I am seriously worried about the frequency of these unfortunate and large scale tragedies in the country which cause needless deaths,” according to a statement by presidential spokesman, Malam Garba Shehu, added “These frequent incidents that result in loss of lives and property are a national scandal caused by our indifference to safety standards.
“Many accidents are avoidable if proper proactive and precautionary measures are put in place or properly observed as routine policies.”
The statement further said Buhari regretted that “ours is a country where we move on whenever tragedies occur instead of taking preventive safety measures to forestall future calamities.”
He tasked the county’s transport authorities, traffic and road management agencies as well as law enforcement officials to sit up and enforce safety standards with more seriousness.
“Refusal to do the right thing can cause potential tragic problems that harm innocent people,” the president said, adding: “Nigeria is not having a shortage of laws and regulations, but our problem is lack of zeal to enforce those laws and regulations for the sake of public safety.”
The tanker, loaded with petrol belonging to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) was said to have had brakes failure around 7 a.m.
The tanker fell on five cars, two motorcycles, and three tricycles popularly known as Keke, killing all occupants and passers-by.
LEADERSHIP Weekend gathered that the brakes of the tanker failed during an attempt to manoeuvre and in the process, fell on its side, trapping five vehicles trying to overtake it.
Speaking with our correspondent the sector commander of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Mr. Idris Ali Fika, said 23 persons were killed in the explosion while one child escaped with injuries.
An eyewitness account told journalists that the fuel tanker fell around popular Olympic hotel at Felele area on Lokoja-Abuja highway.
He pointed out that the passengers in several other vehicles, motorcycles and tricycles rammed into the accident and consequently lost their lives.
“I was about crossing the road when I noticed the tanker driver signalling to motorists to steer clear, but before I could compliment by signalling those on the road, the tanker was on its side falling on all vehicles beside it. Immediately the tanker fell, fire started and burnt all vehicles along its way,” he said.
Sule Braimoh whose sibling was consumed in the inferno without trace urged the federal and state governments as a matter of necessity to make available functional fire fighters bemoaning the fact that there was no functional fire- fighting mechanism around.
In 2017, when a similar incident occurred at the same spot, it was fire fighting vehicles from Obajana, Dangote stable that came to the rescue and helped the matter but then it was too little, too late all the occupants in the 18-seater bus had been burnt.
At the black Wednesday tanker explosion, rescue team of FRSC came with an ambulance to evacuate the corpses burnt beyond recognition, while locals made frantic efforts to identify them to no avail. The charged situation was put under control when the deputy governor, Edward Onoja and wife of the governor, Mrs Rashidat Bello, came to pacify the students whose colleagues were involved in the accident. The expressway was locked down entirely and reporters chased away by angry students.
According to the Kogi State FRSC sector commander, 10 vehicles were involved – five cars, one tanker, three tricycles and two motorcycles, noting that some families had retrieved their deceased ones.
Ali pointed out that the corpses of other victims had been deposited at the specialist hospital in Lokoja.
In the meantime Governor Yahaya Bello had sympathised with families of victims describing the accident as painful and unfortunate.
In a statement issued immediately after the incident by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Onogwu Mohammed, the governor said he was “very sad to learn of the tragic loss of lives, many vehicles, property and other valuables in the petrol tanker fire,” while expressing his deepest condolences to the families of those affected by the occurrence.
The governor said this was sadly the greatest tragedy the state had witnessed in recent times, while describing the accident as a sad development and shared the pains of those who lost their loves ones in this incident.