From Our Housing Stand (21)
Nigeria’s dysfunction again rudely showed itself last Wednesday in Onitsha, the commercial hub of eastern Nigeria when a petrol-laden truck crashed and sparked fire, consuming human beings, buildings and other valuables.
Onitsha, a major town in Anambra State is regarded as very important town because of the many industries and huge markets there. These markets attract business people from many African countries and far away Europe, Asia and America.
The horrific incident created chaos among residents and traders in Ochanja market, Onitsha. Ochanja, the second largest market in the state has more than 10,000 shops. Apart from Ochanja, shops on Iweka Road, Zik’s Avenue and Ozomagala street were equally affected. Scores who were trapped in buildings were burnt to death. Those who suffered heavy losses are brooding the calamity, finding it hard to pull through.
The sad thing here is not just the inferno and the losses. What baffled many was the failure of the Fire Service to respond promptly. It failed to come to the scene as the fire raged and raged on, until humans and property worth billions of naira were reduced to ashes.
Onitsha, big and old as it is, does not have a functional fire service station. If this could happen in Onitsha, one can imagine the state of markets in other places. No wonder, reports of market fire come and go and nothing serious follows apart from wailing and lamentation and giving of handouts to some badly affected persons.
According to report, firefighters were unable to get to the disaster scene for more than seven hours. The fire started at the point the tanker laden with petroleum product fell in front of Toronto Hospital, Onitsha, near Upper Iweka, spilled its content to Ochanja Market, a distance of more than 500 metres.
The fire began at about 12:30pm and lasted till 7:40pm when it was finally put out through individual efforts and help from firefighters from Asaba, Delta State.
As usual, the Federal Fire Service (FFS) has expressed sadness over the loss of lives and property giving excuses that its men were stopped by a mob who pelted its firefighters with stones and blocked the road.
The Controller General of FFS (CGF), Liman Ibrahim Alhaji who disclosed this in a statement issued by the Fire Service Public Relations Officer, DSF Ugo Huan on Thursday said the nearest fire station to the scene of the inferno is in Asaba, Delta State.
The challenge posed by mobilising firefighters from a distant place became obvious as the fire boss expressed: “Our men immediately headed to the scene but it was not possible to contend with the heavy traffic at the head bridge and behaviour of angry mob who pelted stones at them. The Federal Fire Service received a call about the fire outbreak at about 2:00pm. The control room at the headquarters in Abuja immediately turned out the nearest Federal Fire Service Station at Asaba, Delta State to attend to the fire.”
According to him, with the procurement of new state-of-the-art firefighting trucks distributed to the 12 zones of the service across the nation, the service is always ready to respond to fire outbreaks and other emergencies across the nation.
It is well known that the only bridge linking Onitsha and Asaba is always crowded so the fireman should have known that the option of asking Asaba to rescue Onitsha in emergency of this nature was near nil. Apart from this, the road is bad.
Now, the Anambra State Government. One would have thought that in this 21st century, a state like Anambra with a well-travelled and educated governor who swore to protect lives and property would have foreseen this. No! All that he would think of is how to take taxes from the hapless traders.
On the side of the public. Yes, they were incensed that government failed in its responsibility. But attack on firefighters that were on rescue mission was no good.
For tankers, their owners and drivers and road management agents, there should be a renewed commitment to safety. Who are the drivers of these long vehicles carrying highly inflammable substances? What is their level of training? Are the vehicles fit to be on the road? How efficient are the vehicle inspectors and road safety officials at their work?
Time is now to begin massive campaign and enlightenment on fire safety across markets and other property in the country. Though firefighting equipment can be acquired, what is more paramount is general awareness on the science of fire. In this century, facility management is about fire prevention, not firefighting. Every user of buildings should be taught the basic things about fire prevention like switching off appliances when not needed or while leaving buildings.
Government should go back to the old days when firefighters visited schools to enlighten children on fire. Firefighters can as well visit organisations and public places to repeatedly do fire drills.
Fire service should look beyond buying fire equipment and collecting levies and issuing certificates to organisations, to doing proper and intelligent safety analysis/checks on property and settlements and taking proactive measures that would deal with incidents like the one in Onitsha.
Many people only invest in property and services with little or no consideration for safety. Market associations should use their dues to partner with the state fire service to put up functional fire service stations and carry out education of members on fire safety.
More importantly, this should serve as a warning to other market managers. As the dry season is about to set in, we should all beware of fire.
Finally, Viewpoint Housing News demands a thorough investigations to identify cause(s) of this incident. Information at our disposal indicates that the tanker’s head pulled away forcefully on a road regarded as one of the best in Onitsha. This means it was not caused by bad road. The driver was unharmed but many were caught unawares as the fire ignited by the impact chased humans and property.