The death toll from the Onitsha market fire has increased to three, with witnesses saying it could be higher.
PREMIUM TIMES earlier reported the death of a mother and her child from the oil tanker fire in Onitsha, Anambra State capital.
President Muhammadu Buhari has also joined other Nigerians in expressing sadness over the deaths from the incident.
“I am profoundly touched by the sight of the charred remains of an innocent mother and her child who are victims of this tragedy,” the president was quoted as saying in a statement by his spokesperson, Garba Shehu.
“I also extend my sympathies to other victims of the explosion whose houses, shops and other property were destroyed in the mishap.”
The president explained that “while I express sadness over this tragedy, I must at the same time call for urgent action on the part of those concerned to stem these frequent fatal disasters on public roads.”
According to him, “safety precautions and routine maintenance are taken for granted by vehicle owners.”
Mr Buhari called “on the Ministry of Transport, the Federal Road Safety Commission and other stakeholders to urgently address the issue of safety standards in the country, with a view to stemming the embarrassing frequency of these tragedies.”
PREMIUM TIMES reported how the tanker lost control and fell into drainage at MCC Bus stop near Toronto Hospital, Upper-Iweka, Onitsha.
As the tanker fell, it spilled its content around the area and exploded.
The fuel in the drainage flowed down with fire and burnt many houses along Iweka Road before it entered parts of Ochanja Market.
Some parts of Ochanja Market, six houses and many vehicles were razed.
It was gathered that the woman and her child lost their lives when they fell into the gutter at Ochanja First Gate while trying to escape. T
Another man at Ochanja by Zik Avenue went back to his shop to collect the money he kept there while the fire was burning. He was trapped there and died.
There were unconfirmed claims that more people might have died in the fire.
A witness who did not want to be named said that no fewer than four persons had so far died in the incident.
“I saw four lifeless bodies, while a number of persons are still trapped in a building still burning,” he said.
Some commercial banks quickly closed as the fire was spreading close to them at Ochanja Market junction.
Some residents criticised the state government for not equipping the state fire service to adequately respond to fire outbreaks.
They blamed the spread of the fire to non-provision of adequate fire service equipment that would have been used to stop the fire from spreading further.
Onitsha is the commercial nerve centre of the state and the South-east in general.
It is home to one of the largest markets in West Africa and many industries and companies.
As a result of the huge commercial activities in the city, the state government rakes in billions from taxes from the city.
But successive governments in the state have not been able to deploy these revenues to provide adequate amenities to the city’s teeming population
Roads in the city are in deplorable conditions while public utilities like water are non-existent.
The state fire service has been comatose with successive governments unable to revive it.
The city has been relying on the Delta State fire service to help it put out fires in the past.
It took over an hour for the Delta fire service to arrive at the location because of the distance and traffic on the ever-busy River Niger bridge and the Onitsha-Benin highway.
It was gathered that when the fire fighting vehicle arrived at the location, it was initially prevented by protesters from putting out the fire.
The protesters were angry at its lateness and threatened to burn the vehicle.
They blamed the Anambra State Government for the disaster by not providing fire-fighting equipment to the area.
The fire fighting vehicle soon ran out of water and the fire raged on till midnight.
A witness, Okoye Nneji, said that they saw fire coming through the drainage, which made the motorists, traders and passersby flee.
He attributed the disaster to lack of fire extinguishers and other equipment.
He said that many people might be trapped inside their shops at Ochanja Market, stressing that the number of casualties could rise.
Mr Okoye said: “How can a tanker that fell down close to MCC bus stop at Upper Iweka spread fire to about one kilometre without any fire fighting vehicle coming to put out the fire until the whole damage was done and lives wasted?
Police urge for calm
The Anambra police spokesman, Haruna Mohammed, said the fire affected many shops.
According to him, the Commissioner of Police, John Abang, visited the area to ascertain the damage and maintain law and order.
The statement reads: “Today at about 12:59 pm,a trailer loaded with petroleum product lost control at upper iweka, along Enugu-Onitsha Expressway, Onitsha and crashed inside a pavement in between the expressway”
“As a result, the fire spilled over through the gutter and affected many shops and houses”.
“The Commissioner of Police, CP John B. Abang visited the scene for on the spot assessment and appealed to the residents to remain calm. Fire Service department was equally contacted.
“Meanwhile, a yet to be identified woman and her baby caught up by the inferno and burnt beyond recognition were rushed to Toronto hospital but certified dead by a medical doctor while receiving treatment.
“Consequently, police patrol teams have cordoned off the area to prevent hoodlums from taking advantage to loot while effort is still ongoing to put off the fire.”
Obiano commiserates with victims
Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State has sympathised with victims of the fire.
A statement on his behalf issued by his Commissioner for Information & Public Enlightenment, Don Adinuba, however, claimed that the ‘Men of the Anambra State Fire Service arrived at the scene in good time with their new equipment’.
“But for some reason, however, they were unable to quench the inferno,” he said.
The governor noted that “consequently the angry mob at the scene prevented other fire trucks from getting to the scene”.
“Governor Obiano and the entire people of Anambra State regret this unfortunate situation and the governor has taken steps to address the concerns of those affected.
“Government, therefore,e requests owners of properties affected by the tragic accident, shop owners and family reps of deceased victims to assemble at Ekwueme Square, Awka on Monday, October 21 2019 at 11 a.m. for documentation and to see how the Anambra State Government can assist them.”
The governor also announced the setting up of a panel “to look into the incident.”
“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,” the spokesperson said.