How 32 church members perished in Ebonyi River

September 21, 2020

•We’ve never seen a tragedy of this magnitude before –Community
Chijioke Agwu, Abakaliki

Members of the Christ Peculiar Assembly Church, Enugu, in Enugu State, have been thrown into devastating mourning following last Friday’s fatal accident that occurred at the Akaeze Ukwu axis of the Afikpo-Okigwe Highway in Ivo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State.

The accident claimed the lives of about 32 of them, with four others still battling for survival in the hospital.

As many as 32 persons died inside the Ezeiyiaku River when an Enugu-bound 608 bus plunged into the river as the driver of the bus tried to overtake an articulated vehicle. It was gathered that the victims of the tragic crash were members of the church who had attended the burial of their deceased general secretary in Owutu Edda, in Afikpo South Local Government Area of Ebonyi State.

While five occupants of the bus, including the driver, were rescued that Friday evening, 14 corpses were recovered from the river on Saturday evening, 24 hours after the incident. One of the rescued persons, a woman, later died in the hospital.

It was gathered that although the vehicle was a 32-seater capacity bus, the occupants were more than 32 as it was reportedly filled beyond capacity. The church members were reportedly in a convoy of more than eight vehicles when the incident happened.

Early callers at the scene said occupants of the other seven vehicles had alighted from their various vehicles to see if they could help pull out the vehicle from the river. But none of them could enter the ferocious water, which completely submerged the unfortunate bus and the occupants. Not knowing what to do, the church members could only wail while praying fervently to God for divine intervention. But no serious help came until about 24 hours later.

When our correspondent visited the scene in the morning on Saturday, a crowd of helpless people, comprising villagers, road users, Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) officers, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence (NSCDC) personnel, officials of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), as well as the army, police and some local divers were seen clustering atop and around the bridge.

A leader in Akaeze community and coordinator of Akaeze Development Centre, Mr. Ogbuatu Victor Simbard, told our correspondent that members of the community and some of the church members held vigil throughout the night after efforts by local divers to hook cranes onto the bus inside the river failed.

“The situation is a very challenging one for us. We have been trying our best to see that the bus is out from the river. At the moment, we have taken only five of them out, but one of them, a woman, died at the hospital. The two cranes that were brought in yesterday by the Commissioner for Works and the chairman of Ivo LGA could not do anything because the local divers were unable to tie the crane on the bus inside the river so that the crane could lift the bus. But they have located where the bus was inside the river. It is right under the bridge. But you know it requires the capacity to stay longer inside the water to be able to hook the crane on the bus. And the local divers do not have the equipment that could help them do that. So, the bus remains in the water with about 30 more persons, or corpses, because there is no way any of them can be alive up to this moment, after about 24 hours. But there is nothing God cannot do. Because we could not get help around anymore, our chairman, Chief Onyebuchi Ogbadu, has sent for professional divers from Rivers and Cross River states to come and help,” he said.

When the professional divers from Rivers and Cross River later arrived at the scene around 3pm on Saturday, their efforts led to the recovery of 14 corpses, after the bus was lifted from the river.

Ogbadu, who confirmed the recovery of the corpses, added that the divers were still searching for those that the overflowing river swept out of the bus.

Some members of Akaeze Ukwu community who were by the river when the tragic incident occurred said the driver of the bus apparently did not know that there was a bridge at the spot, judging by the speed with which he wanted to overtake the trailer just at the edge of the bridge.

Okechukwu Chukwu, one of the local divers who rescued the driver of the vehicle and four others on Friday evening, told Daily Sun at the scene of the tragedy that the community had never witnessed a tragedy of such magnitude before.

Chukwu, who blamed the driver of the bus for careless overtaking, also attributed the ugly incident to the pothole at the edge of the bridge, which he said the trailer driver was dodging, making him to block the bus driver.

He called on government to take a second look at the bridge and the road to see what could be done to widen it.

“I was here when the accident happened. And I was one of the swimmers that rescued five of the passengers, including the driver. Unfortunately, I was later told that one of them, a woman, died in the hospital. The driver of the 608 bus is to be blamed for careless overtaking. It was like he didn’t know there was a bridge here, judging from the way he drove. Ever since I was born and brought up in this community, I have never seen a tragedy like this happen in Akaeze. I blame the pothole here and the narrow nature of the bridge because the driver of the trailer was also dodging potholes, which made him block the bus driver’s view. Government should come and patch this pothole and also do something on this bridge and the road. I think the bridge is becoming too narrow for the road,” Chukwu said.

The driver of the ill-fated bus, Mr. Onu Chinedu, blamed the accident on his own insistence on overtaking the trailer.

Chinedu, a native of Ikwo in Ebonyi State resident in Enugu, spoke to Daily Sun last Saturday from his hospital bed at St. Dennis Medical Centre, Akaeze, where he was receiving treatment. He said he was still in shock over the incident.

“We were returning from a burial at Edda. I wanted to overtake a trailer, but the driver was blocking me. Each time I wanted to overtake him, he would block me. But I kept coming behind him, looking and waiting for an opportunity to overtake him. When we got to that place, I saw an opportunity and I sped off. But before I could look up, I was already about to hit the trailer, so to avoid hitting the back of the trailer, I moved the steering towards my right hand and unfortunately that was almost at the edge of the bridge. Not knowing what to do again, I applied the brakes, and instantly, the bus somersaulted and landed in the river. That was the last thing I knew. The next thing was that I saw myself in the hospital. My bus is a 32-seater capacity bus but I don’t know if the back seats were filled up.”

Mr. Victor Ede, from Isiuzo Local Government Area of Enugu State, was another survivor rescued on Friday night by divers. He told the reporter from his hospital bed in Akaeze that many of the victims came from different branches of the church in different parts of Enugu but assembled in Enugu Town that Friday morning before leaving for the burial. He said he did not know some of them.

He said: “We are from Christ Peculiar Assembly, Enugu. We were coming back from the burial of our church secretary at Edda when the accident happened. We came together in Enugu and then moved together to the burial. We were in a convoy of more than eight vehicles,” he said.

Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari and Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State have commiserated with the families of the victims, describing the accident as unfortunate.

Buhari, in his condolence message to the government and people of Ebonyi State, expressed sadness over the unfortunate and tragic incident.

The message, which was signed by his Senior Special Assistant on Media, Mallam Garba Shehu, said his thoughts and prayers as well as those of the government and people of Nigeria were with the families and victims of the incident.

Governor Umahi, who visited the scene on Saturday afternoon with a team of top government functionaries, prayed for God to give the affected families the fortitude to bear the loss.

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