When legendary Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, sang the famous line: “Double wahala for dead body, and the owner of dead body,” in one of his hit tracks – ‘Confusion break bone’ – it was as if he had Awka, Anambra State capital, and the tragedy that greeted it on December 29, 2018 in mind. On that fateful day, a ruthless inferno ripped through the morgue of Enugwu Ukwu General Hospital in Njikoka Local Government Area of the city, consuming over 50 corpses in the process. The development not only sent panic and confusion across the state, it also added to the sorrow of the families of the dead – many of whom were preparing for the burial of their loved ones at the time.
Lamenting how the tragedy had disrupted their plans and caused more pains even for them a handful of those affected, who spoke with Saturday PUNCH said that they may never fully recover from the shock and confusion the incident left them.
Narrating his sad experience, Mr Sunday Ibe, whose brother’s remains had been deposited at the mortuary two weeks before the fire outbreak, said that he was initially denied access to the body the previous time he visited the morgue, only to get a call by 3pm of that fateful day that the entire place had been razed by fire. Realising that his brother’s body might never be identified from the debris, he told Saturday PUNCH that it was double jeopardy for the family.
“If not for the ban by the state government that corpses should not be buried as from December 15 to allow for a smooth Christmas, we would have buried our brother before that tragedy occurred,” he revealed. “We were still crying over his sudden death when the sad news of the fire incident came.
“We have been trying to keep the news away from our mother for fear of losing her too as she is currently hypertensive,” he added.
Most communities across the southeastern state had banned burial ceremonies from December 15, leading to a high number of corpses in many mortuaries. While using the opportunity to put final touches to the burial plans of their loved ones, tragedy, however, struck. For those affected, lamentations and confusion have been the order of the day.
During a visit to the hospital’s morgue a few days after the incident, our correspondent observed how relatives of the dead poured into the place endlessly to see if they could identify the bodies of their loved ones. After trying for hours without luck, cries of agony followed. It was a sight of men and women in deep sorrow.
A source said few of the corpses, which were identified, were being transferred to Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu Teaching hospital in Awka, while others were left for individuals and families to identify.
Describing the situation as strange, a former lawmaker, Charles Amilo, has called for an investigation into the fire incident. Speaking with our correspondent shortly after the incident, he said there were different theories into the cause of the inferno.
“We are in agony because virtually every family in the community is affected one way or the other.
“We were told that a witch doctor from Okija in Ihiala Local Government Area, who died some days before the incident, instructed that his remains should not be deposited in a mortuary but his relations disregarded his order and put his body in the morgue.
“We learnt that since that time, the ghost of the native doctor had been hovering around the mortuary and terrorising the place, eventually leading to the burning of the place by fire.
“Many families in the community are in agony because of the development. It’s a tragedy that has affected everybody. We want the matter investigated. We need everybody’s help in this regard,” he said.
Giving more insight into the tragedy and corroborating Amilo’s claims, a worker at the burnt mortuary, told Saturday PUNCH that in the days leading to the fire incident, especially when the body of the witch doctor was brought in, they noticed strange happenings around the place.
“From the moment the corpse of that man (witch doctor) was brought to the mortuary, nobody had rest. Strange things continued to happen. Sometimes, you would get to work and the morgue would be open without you knowing who opened it.
“On two occasions, we came to work and saw that some corpses had been repositioned. We personally complained to the authorities but they didn’t take us seriously until when everywhere was razed by fire.
“The day the family members brought the man’s body here, we nearly rejected it because they were arguing over whether to deposit his remains in the morgue or not. It was after we accepted the body that we started experiencing problems here,” he said.
When contacted by Saturday PUNCH, Police Public Relations Officer in the state, Haruna Mohammed, said they had commenced investigation into the matter.
“The fire caused extensive damage in the building as almost all the corpses at the mortuary were burnt beyond recognition.
“The cause of the fire is unknown but the case is under investigation. We shall unravel the mystery,” he said.
Commissioner for Health, Dr Josephat Akabuike, said compilation of names of the people that deposited the corpses was ongoing, and asked them to submit their receipts for easy confirmation. However, some families have been able to identify and reclaim the bodies of their loved ones after the incident occurred.