The sudden loss of his two sons has left 64-year-old retiree, Wasimeba Cottrell, distraught. He was shattered by the death of the children and of the high hopes he had for them. Since last Saturday when an oil pipeline exploded in Komkom community, Oyingbo Local Government Area of Rivers State, killing scores of people, sound sleep has eluded the sexagenarian. Each time he closed his eyes to sleep, the joyful moments that heralded the births of the sons, followed by thoughts of terror would flash through his mind.
Cottrell, who hails from Buguma in Asari-Toru Local Government Area, has been grieving for his two sons: Endurance and Okorinama, who died in the explosion. After his retirement from Intels Nigeria Limited, he had moved to his hometown. He said he was in Komkom community to visit his sons, only to be greeted by news of their deaths.
According to him, his older son, Endurance, had urged his brother, Okorinama, to follow him to the swamp where petrol was being scooped when the incident occurred. Endurance had scooped some fuel at the scene of the explosion the previous day and made some money from its sale.
The senior citizen said his entire family was devastated by the loss of two of his sons. Cottrell had five sons and five daughters before the explosion gruesomely took two members of his family away in one day. Cortrell blamed his children for embarking on such a dangerous venture; however, he reserved some blame for the government too for failing to provide an enabling environment with job opportunities for youths.
“I understand that Endurance had gone to the swamp the previous day and fetched 25 litres of petrol, which he sold. Then the next day, Endurance woke up his younger brother – Okorinama – very early in the morning to follow him to the swamp. After the explosion, my wife started looking for them. It was while she was crying that she was told that they had both gone to the swamp and died there.
“The two sons had just concluded their secondary school education before their untimely deaths.
“The government should provide an enabling environment with job opportunities for the people, especially our youths. If they were employed, my boys wouldn’t have died untimely. It’s because of failure of governance and greed in government that we have these problems. I am retired and was not paid any good money; that was why I had to go back to my village to struggle to survive and also take care of my family,” he said.
Mrs Ngozi Samuel Edet is the mother of the late Richard Samuel, 35, who was also killed in the inferno.
As she tried to restrain her tears which were beginning to well up in her eyes, Edet explained that her son was an expert mechanic who specialised in repairing Japanese-made cars.
She said though her son had complained about lack of customers in his workshop, she was still shocked to learn that he was at the swamp early Saturday morning when the explosion rocked the area.
The grieving mother also berated the government for not doing well for Nigerians, saying if the country had been better managed, many of the people who were at the swamp to scoop fuel would have been positively engaged.
She said, “I was still sleeping when the explosion occurred; it happened very early on that day. One of my neighbours ran to me and said my son had gone to the swamp too. He wasn’t supposed to go there, he was supposed to go to his workshop because he was a specialist in repairing Japanese-made car engines, but recently he had been complaining that there was no work to do.
“We started looking for him and found him dead in the swamp. Our entire family has been grieving since, my son’s death is a big blow to our family. We have taken his remains to Akwa Ibom State where we buried him, but my anger in all this is that if the government had done better with the economy, most of the boys would not have attempted such a thing. No one will leave his job to go and be scooping fuel; it was hardship that led the boys to where they perished.”
Ndifreke Friday, a 33-year-old barber, also lost his 23-year-old brother, Daniel Friday, also a barber, to the unfortunate incident. Daniel was said to have also gone to the swamp to scoop fuel spilling from the oil pipeline after seeing others rushing to get the product from the swamp. He was said to have decided to quickly go there early that morning before opening his shop, only to meet his death.
Friday said if he knew his brother was planning to join the frenzy, he would have done everything within his power to stop him, especially as the late Daniel’s wife was pregnant.
“Daniel has his own barbing shop that I helped him to establish after he concluded his apprenticeship in my shop. I heard he decided to join those scooping fuel when he saw others rushing there.
“I wasn’t with him; I was in another area where my barbing saloon is. If I knew that he was planning to join those in the swamp to scoop the fuel, I wouldn’t have allowed him to go. I was in my shop when people rushed to tell that my brother had been burnt to death in the swamp. I was devastated by the news and wondered why he left his shop to go the swamp to die,” Friday said.
The bereaved man said he had made arrangements to take his late younger brother’s corpse to their village where he would be buried.
A youth who lives in the community where the pipeline operated by the Pipelines and Product Marketing Company, a subsidiary of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, taking petrol to Abia State exploded, Ethelbert Nwokorie, said he brought out 23 bodies from the swamp on Saturday and another eight on Sunday, without using any gloves.
According to Nwokorie, most of the bodies were people he knew and as such, he felt indebted to help in retrieving their corpses and handing them over to their grieving family members who were shocked by the incident.
He said, “After the explosion on Saturday, a lot of people were burnt to death in the swamp. The sight was terrifying, but I had to volunteer myself in bringing out many of the dead bodies to their people.
“The bodies were severely burnt, almost becoming ashes. Some of the body parts would have to be gathered inside the coffin. There were scores of people there. On Saturday, I brought out 23 bodies and on Sunday, I brought out eight.
“I would go to the swamp, bring out a piece of the clothes worn by the victims and if the relatives were able to recognise the clothes, I would go back in and bring out the bodies for the relatives to take away.
“I did all that with my bare hands, I did not use any hand gloves and I did not ask for money from anyone. I did it for God; even some of the victims were people I loved, persons who used to help me when they were alive. For instance, there was one old man we called Samson, who went to the swamp with his 15-year-old son to buy palm wine for an occasion.”
Nwokorie, who is a father of four, said those who were burnt to death by the explosion had gone to the site to scoop fuel out of greed. According to him, the poverty and hardship in the country wasn’t enough reason for them to expose themselves to such danger.
“What happened here was as a result of greed; they were expected to stay away from the fuel, it didn’t belong to them. The government knows the reason why they put a warning signpost close to the pipeline to let people know it is dangerous to tamper with the pipelines. Even if you are hungry and there is hardship in the country, stay away from danger. Don’t see death and face it,” he said.
On his part, Obinna Amaechi, a member of the Pipelines and Product Marketing Company pipeline surveillance team, said the area where the explosion occurred was his monitoring section.
He alleged that a police gunshot fired into the swamp led to the explosion, adding that the security operative was after a man with the petroleum product. According to him, the policeman shot into the area when he saw the man escape there.
“Where the explosion happened was my own surveillance kilometre; my annoyance is that the police have no business in pipeline security. The police interference in pipeline security caused the explosion. A policeman attached to the Afam police division fired a gunshot into the swamp after chasing a youth who ran to the swamp area.
“The policeman chased the boy who was with a 25 litre keg of petrol he had scooped from the area. When the policeman tried to arrest him, the boy managed to escape and ran to the swamp area. He left the petrol there with police, but because the policeman failed to catch the boy, he fired a gunshot and that started the fire.
“I am saying what I saw with my own eyes; the policeman fired his shot from a distance, so he wasn’t affected by the fire. As the place exploded, it shook ground and I took cover,” he said.
The Zonal Head, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Port Harcourt zone, Cyrus Nkangwung, who visited the explosion site to ascertain the level of damage, said his agency had taken note of the loss – lives and infrastructure.
He added that after a joint investigation with other sister agencies, NOSDRA would ascertain the extent of the impact and the cause of the spill.
“We have visited the site to ascertain concretely the cause of the spill and taken statistics. With these statistics, we’ll be able to know what the issues are after a joint investigation with PPMC, Department of Petroleum Resources, and the state ministry of environment,” he said.
Nkangwung noted that statistics of damage and loss taken included plants, water and humans.
“When there is a spill, we warn people to stay away from the area, they should run away with their lives. If properties are destroyed, we will take statistics of that later.
“We took statistics of what has happened to the environment, the land, plants, water bodies and the people affected,” he said.
Speaking on the cause of the explosion and number of casualties affected, the Police Public Relations Officer in Rivers State, DSP Nnamdi Omoni, said the state Commissioner of Police, Usman Belel, had ordered an investigation into the incident, adding that it is after the investigations are concluded that the police can ascertain the number of casualties affected and also punish whoever is found culpable.
He said, “Investigation has been ordered by the commissioner of police into the incident; we await the outcome of the investigation. Any figure, allegation and counter-allegation will neither be here nor there.
“It is when the investigation is concluded that we will know the outcome and if anybody is found culpable, that person would be dealt with accordingly.”