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40 die in Onitsha fuel fire …12 vehicles, 3 motorcycles burnt

By The Citizen

No fewer than 40 persons were burnt beyond recognition yesterday at the ever- busy Upper Iweka in Onitsha, Anambra State when a petrol tanker exploded at the Asaba Park axis after a suspected brake failure.

Fourteen L300 buses loading passengers inside the park and three motorcycles plying the area as at the time of the incident were also burnt. Among those killed in the fire were a  pregnant woman and little babies.

The tragic incident, which occurred at about 2.30p.m. threw residents and travellers in the commercial city of Onitsha into panic. Many wailed uncontrollably at the site of the charred remains  of the victims.

Victims of the accident were mostly drivers and passengers at the park, free readers who thronged the newspaper stands along the park, vendors and hawkers  in the area.

An eye witness, Victor Ugwumadu, said the driver of the petrol-laden tanker was descending the Upper Iweka flyover from the Enugu-Nkpor end of the expressway when the vehicle lost its brakes and the driver diverted the vehicle into the busy NITEL Lane, where different transport companies load their vehicles before finally hitting the Asaba Park and ramming into the VIP toilet building, killing many people in the process.

Ugwumadu said the tanker caught fire about 10 minutes after ramming into the building but many casualties had been trapped in the rubble.

When Daily Sun reporter visited the scene, men of the Fire Service from Okpoko and Main Market station who were seen trying to put out the fire were helpless. They ran out of water.

A combined team of policemen from Okpoko, Area Command, Central Police Station, Onitsha, Fegge Division and Awada and officers of the Federal Road Safety Corps, Red Cross and State Security Services battled to rescue the victims.

The security agents also faced the herculean task of controlling hundreds of sympathisers and onlookers who thronged the scene. Some angry youths at the scene wanted to block the expressway in protest against the tanker drivers, but the security agents intervened and stopped the youths.

Speaking to Daily Sun, Mr. Iyke Nzegwu, a Chief Superintendent of Fire Service from Okpoko Station regretted that the service was incapacitated to handle emergency situations owing to government's negligence.

He said Okpoko station had only one functional vehicle out of three and they ran out of water as soon as they arrived the scene, a situation which led to the escalation of the fire.

The Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of Administration, DCP Makama, who also visited the scene of the incident,  said the incident was regrettable. He said the government would take proactive measures to forestall  future recurrence.

The Onitsha Unit Commander of the FRSC, Anthony Metta, when contacted for comments said his men were still at the scene trying to handle the situation. He said at press time, 22 bodies had been recovered and  deposited at a nearby morgue, while rescue operations were still on.

Some of the angry respondents, who spoke to Daily Sun, recalled that similar incidents had happened three times in the last eight months. They called on the relevant authorities to relocate the Asaba Park in Upper Iweka without delay and also ban tanker drivers from plying the roads during the daytime. The Sun