Posted by By Peter Schineller on
We have suffered an enormous tragedy, the death of 60 of our children in the Sosoliso plane crash on 10 December
We have suffered an enormous tragedy, the death of 60 of our children in the Sosoliso plane crash on 10 December. Many of the parents and brothers and sisters of the children were at the airport to welcome the children home for the Christmas holidays. Their pain must be doubled. One student survived and she is receiving treatment in South Africa.
How does one react to this tragedy? Can one make any sense of it? Why might God (who did not cause this) allow this to happen? We are all searching for answers even as we grieve. I was with many of the grieving families in Port Harcourt, and I sense a powerful movement beginning. It is a movement from grief, through determination, to hope – hope for Loyola Jesuit College and for our nation.
My mind goes back ten years ago, to April 1, 1995, to the foundation laying ceremony here at the future site of Loyola Jesuit College. The Honourable Walter Carrington, United States Ambassador to Nigeria, uttered powerful and prophetic words. On that occasion, here in Gidan Mangoro, in the FCT, there were no buildings, only the beginnings of roads, and construction equipment.
As he looked over the terrain, Carrington spoke of “The Field of Dreams” imagining what a wonderful educational institution would soon be in place. He was familiar with Jesuit education, and knew that Loyola Jesuit College would become a centre of excellence.
The college is built, and is now in its tenth year. For the past three years in succession it has the best results in WAEC examinations for all schools in Nigeria, for several years, the most consistent performance in the Cowbell National Secondary Schools Mathematics Competition. Its graduates are in universities in Nigeria and Ghana, the United Kingdom and in the USA, several of them on scholarships.
In 1996, the opening year, less than 500 students took the entrance exam and 100 were accepted. In April 2005, over 2300 took the entrance exam and 120 were accepted, totally on merit, students at the top of their classes in many of the best primary schools throughout Nigeria.
And yet! Carrington expressed one major concern. He pondered and wondered what would happen when the students of Loyola Jesuit College left the beautiful 25 hectare campus. How would Nigeria receive them? What kind of world would they enter? He asked: “What happens when they go beyond these confines. Will the society be nurturing and accepting of the values they learn here?” He admitted that, as he looked beyond the horizon of the future campus, beyond the “field of dreams”, the vision was much hazier.
Now we know. Now we see what can happen when they leave our beautiful campus. The tragic crash of Sosoliso 1145 on Saturday, December 10, 2005 is a frightening, terrifying answer to the question and concern of Carrington. It is a terrible indictment of so many aspects of life and systems in Nigeria.
That Saturday morning, the children were rejoicing. The term had ended. Christmas carols were sung the night before, with a candlelight procession.
They would travel to be with their families for Christmas holidays. But instead of a safe flight to Port Harcourt, the plane missed the runway, hit the culvert and scattered its cargo, precious human cargo, over a distance of 1000 meters. Over 100 passengers, including 60 beautiful, talented children of Loyola Jesuit College, died.
What happened on December 10, was one terrible part of the world of Nigeria into which these children returned. It was a world where an accurate weather report and better communications might well have instructed the pilot not to land. It was a world where there may have been a mechanical failure on the plane which caused the crash. It may have been pilot error. Airport lights and electricity might have guided the pilot in his efforts to land. We are not sure, but something, something, went terribly wrong.
The immediate reaction to the crash at the airport was another indicator of the trouble with Nigeria, the world which our children wished to enter. “No water, no water!” I heard several of the classmates of these deceased children say this in public, at a gathering of families and students affected by the crash. “My classmates burned to death because there was no water!” No water, in Rivers State, where water is abundant, no water in the fire fighting equipment to put out the fire. Emergency services were slow in coming. Many of the bodies of the children were not badly burnt. They were still in their red, or yellow, or green or blue uniforms, with little or no physical damage. Doctors say they died of suffocation. No ambulances were there. It is reported that a truck was used to carry the bodies of the injured and the dead – together. This might well have led to the avoidable death of some of those seriously injured.
This is the world into which these children returned – how prophetic were the words of Carrington, ten years ago! He was thinking of the world they would enter when they graduated from LJC, but they would die prematurely. The 60 students of LJC who died They were the best and the brightest. In visiting the bereaved families, we learn that one of them planned to be an aeronautical engineer. One planned to be a doctor. Another first year student wrote a beautiful poem to her mum three weeks earlier, explaining how difficult it was to get into LJC, but now that she was there, it was a rose, it was paradise on earth. She admitted she was only 18th of 115 in the first series of exams, but with determination she knew that she could and would do even better. One had a full scholarship to another quality school, but turned it down in order to study at LJC.
Other students and teachers remarked that the students on the plane from Port Harcourt were simply among the best of their classes. And each of the 24 classes at LJC suffered at least one death. Sixty innocent children, 1/10 of the LJC student body gone. The head boy and his younger sister. The mother and father who lost all three of their children, their only children. Another mother and father who lost two children and their bodies were never positively identified. Each of the children has a story to be told, but no longer a life in which to tell it.
I was in Port Harcourt two days after the crash, trying to console the parents and friends. I was there for one week, going from home to home, family to family, funeral to funeral, burial to burial. To the mortuaries to assist in trying to identify bodies. Seven bodies were eventually buried in a common grave at the Port Harcourt Cemetery. Seven lovely children belonging to six different parents.
And yet! There is determination leading to hope. Hope is being reborn. This was the major theme of the remarks of Carrington ten years ago, at the foundation laying for Loyola Jesuit College. He spoke eloquently that this was “a wonderful day to see hope reborn.” Determination leading to hope came through time and again as I tried to console grieving parents. They reached out and tried to console me. They explained that while they lost 1, 2, or 3 children, that I as President of LJC, and all the staff, had lost 60 children. I saw unimaginable, deep, and great faith especially in those who suffered the loss of their children.
What began to emerge as we went from family to family, funeral to funeral, was the conviction that this must Not Happen Again. We owe it to the nation; we owe it to these 60 innocent children that this must not happen again. I kept hearing again and again, that these children cannot have died in vain. Especially from those who suffered the loss of their children, and from all the Loyola Jesuit College parents, determination and hope was growing. We began to see that it is our response, our responsibility. We, the living, must make sure of this. They shall not have died in vain.
Already we had been planning on how to celebrate our tenth anniversary of quality education at Loyola Jesuit College. In our visits to the bereaved, we continually received confirmation that our decision to situate LJC at the centre of Nigeria, at the new capital Abuja, was the right decision. We wanted to draw students from all over Nigeria, students from all ethnic and all religious traditions to come together, to bond together, to show that all Nigerians can live, study, and work together. This was and is our dream, and the dream remains with more determination than ever. No one talked of turning back. Now we must assure that transportation systems allow our school to fulfil its dream and its mission.
We had planned to construct two additional buildings, one of which will most likely now be named Memorial Hall, to honour the memory of the 60 students. While these buildings are still needed, the real celebration of our ten years now must shift its focus to the building of a better, safer Nigeria. These children must not die in vain. If the avoidable death of 60 of the best, of the future of Nigeria, does not touch the hearts of those in authority, in government, then nothing will.
It is not only the aviation sector that needs cleansing. It is all transportation systems. Our students should be able to leave the peaceful campus of Gidan Mangoro and travel in safety, in security, on good roads, or by air, or rail, to every corner of Nigeria. The education sector should be providing quality education at all levels in all towns and villages of Nigeria. The health sector must be able to provide emergency services in a time of crisis, as well as affordable health care for all citizens.
In a few weeks, 557 students rather than 617 will return to Gidan Mangoro. We are planning now, with the help of professional counsellors, how best to begin anew, with determination and hope. Having heard some of the classmates of those who died speak and give witness to how they feel, I feel confident that we will manage.
• Schineller is President of Loyola Jesuit
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