SUNDAY SPECIAL REPORTS
Chiemelie Ezeobi, who monitored the explosion that rocked Abule-Ado, one of the many suburbs that dot Lagos, last Sunday, reports that the disaster, which claimed no fewer than 22 lives, destroyed over 100 houses, cars and displaced about 500 persons, exposes the underbelly of crisis management and crowd control especially, the lack of synergy between the emergency responders in the state
On Sunday, March 15, 2020, nothing gave the residents of Abule-Ado in Amuwo Odofin Local Government Area of Lagos State, an inkling that their world as they knew it was about to crumble like a pack of badly stacked cards. Some were on their way to church; some were already in church and others at home, when the loud and wall cracking explosion occurred at about 9am.
The explosion brought down houses, destroyed cars and even killed about 22 people, including a family of four, a newly married couple and a pregnant woman. The explosion, which was heard as far as Agege, Yaba, Ejigbo and even Okota, was first thought to be a bomb blast, gas explosion and then pipeline explosion.
Emergency Responders and their Operations
Emergency responders were drawn from the Lagos State Fire Service, Federal Fire Service, Nigerian Navy Fire Service, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA), the police, Red Cross, Lagos State Ambulance Services (LASAMBUS), Rapid Response Squad (RRS), Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) and others.
As at 1.41pm, seven bodies had been recovered from the explosion and by 2.33pm, four more bodies were recovered, bringing the fatality rate to 11. When it was 4.05pm, as the emergency workers toiled to rescue those trapped in the rubble of over 100 destroyed houses, the death toll increased to 15, including that of a family of four – father, mother and two sons.
By nightfall, two more bodies were recovered, bringing the total to 17. The next day, there more bodies were also recovered and by Thursday and Friday, two additional bodies, bringing the total figure to 22.
Cause of Explosion
One thing that stood out in this incident was the conflicting reports on what might have caused the explosion. Initially, when the explosion happened, the first responder, the Lagos State Fire Service had tweeted that it was an implosion, which expectedly raised more questions on what caused the implosion. Reacting to the incident, the Lagos State Fire Service said: “We are assuring the general public that the implosion is not connected with pipelines but buildings on fire in Ado Soba, Abule Ado, Amuwo Odofin and the situation is under control.”
But minutes later, the beauty of social media came to play. Victims flooded their social media platforms with pictures and live reports from the scene of the explosion, which countered the claims of the fire service. More worrisome was the fact that their initial tweet went viral and even had some state government officials adopt it as their position.
Perhaps, this false information was part of the factors that delayed rescue operation. Attempts by THISDAY to reach other emergency responders to get the actual situation on ground proved abortive as they were all touting the response by the fire service. It took the better part of an hour before other responders got seemed like the true picture of what happened.
It was sometime in the afternoon that the emergency services began to issue their releases on the probable cause(s) but the one that thrived more was that it was a gas leak. They said the explosion was caused by gas leakage that formed gas clouds in the sky and upon contact with naked fire, exploded. According to them, before they could get to the scene, the explosion had already ruptured the NNPC pipeline that runs through the suburb.
They added that it was the contact of fire with the petroleum products in the ruptured pipeline that exacerbated the explosion and spread to residential buildings, schools and churches in the area. Speaking to THISDAY, the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Oladele Daji, who was on ground during the rescue operation, also said the explosion was caused by gas leakage.
“It was caused by gas leakage. When we came here, we saw so many gas cylinders scattered all over. The explosion now ruptured the gas pipeline that runs through there and it led to the fire. Gas and petroleum do not flow. Those that are selling gas here have refused to know that what they are doing is deadly,” he said.
Also clarifying issues, acting Coordinator, Lagos Territorial Office, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Mr Ibrahim Farinloye, said the explosion was not an act of pipeline vandalism as was earlier touted.
NNPC Group Managing Director, Mele Kyari, who came in for an on-the-spot assessment, also confirmed that the explosion was caused by gas cylinder leakages that ignited the wild-spread fire. He, however, said the fire could have been aggravated by surrounding buildings and other factors, including gas vendors that built on NNPC pipeline’s right of way (ROW).
He said, “I arrived Lagos to make on-the-spot assessment of the explosion that also ignited NNPC product pipeline fire. Explosions caused by spark that ignited fire from extensively charged atmosphere that emanated from gas cylinder leakages. NNPC pipeline also impacted and ignited. Fire being contained by combined efforts of NNPC, LASG NN and FFS.
“NNPC pipeline right of way (ROW) encroachment by gas handling vendors and construction of houses enabled the explosion and aggravated the impact. Working with LASG and security agencies to clear the ROW.”
The very next day, the tune changed. After a meeting of all stakeholders, which was held at the Government House, Alausa, chaired by the Deputy Governor, Dr. Hamzat Obafemi, security and emergency agencies, had revealed that contrary to earlier speculation, the explosion was caused by pressure exerted on the NNPC pipeline by a heavy-duty tipper.
According to them, the tipper, which was fully laden with granite, was parked on the pipeline overnight, thus forcing the content in the pipeline to blow up.
Farinloye, while shedding more light on this, said the pressure exerted on the pipeline could be likened to compressing a coke bottle.
“When the pressure became too much, the pipeline forced itself out to escape and that was why the sky was filled with grey smoke that led to explosion before the fire.”
But contrary to government’s insistence that it wasn’t a bomb blast, the residents and landlords of the area begged to differ. Calling on the federal and state government to set up a high-powered fact-finding committee to unravel the immediate and remote causes of the explosion, which they described as a national disaster, the Landlords/Residents Association of Soba, led by Chief Gani Adams, said the incident was not a pipeline explosion as the government would want everyone to believe.
The chairman, who was represented by Mr. Chime Umadim, faulted NNPC’s stance that it was a pipeline explosion. According to them, the explosion was nothing short of a bomb blast.
“Contrary to the submission of the Group Managing Director of NNPC, Mr. Mele Kyari, that the blast was caused by some gas depots close to the pipeline right of way, an information that is totally false, with deliberate calculation to suppress the fact, we are convinced that it was a bomb detonated on the pipeline, which caused the unprecedented blast and damage to lives and properties.
“Suffice to say that at no time has pipeline explosion caused the type of heavy blast that resonated far beyond the immediate communities such as Festac Town and Satelite town to farther communities as Ijanikin, Badagry, Orile Iganmu, Surulere, Ijegun, Ejigbo and Oshodi to mention a few, leaving behind in its wake, shattered windows and roof of houses.”
Corroborating this, the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), in a separate statement given to THISDAY, alleged that the scale of destruction witnessed at Abule-Ado, after last Sunday’s explosion, could only be likened to military grade explosions or aerial bombardment.
Stressing that the incident couldn’t be treated casually as an accident caused by a truck, they also charged the federal government to carry out forensic investigation of the immediate and remote causes of the explosion, which killed scores and led to a devastation of epic proportions.
According to the Head, Media and Campaigns, Philip Jakpor, the team formed this opinion after they visited the scene to document impacts.
While demanding a forensic investigation to ascertain the true cause of the incident, Jakpor also called on the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu to immediately set up a Special Task Force on pipelines security with the purpose of preventing ceaseless pipeline accidents in the state.
“The Sunday morning blast occurred near the popular ASPAMDA market and Mechanic village in Abule Ado, Amuwo Odofin Local Government Area. Vibrations from the blast shook many parts of the state, and were felt as far as Iba, Okokomaiko, Agege, Alimosho and Surulere, among others.
“The Lagos government had earlier stated the incident was not in any way linked to pipeline vandalism but could not provide details on the cause of the incident, but the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) insisted it was caused by a truck that hit some cylinders stacked in a gas processing plant located near the corporations’ system 2B Pipeline right of way. “The federal government should not to be too casual to conclude that that the incident was an accident”, noting that, “the accounts of the NNPC on the real cause of the blast is unconvincing and raises some questions.”
ERA/FoEN’s Deputy Executive Director, Akinbode Oluwafemi contended that: “There is something suspiciously different about this explosion. The scale of destruction is nothing like any of the pipeline explosions we have monitored and documented for several decades.
“The Sunday incident’s scale of destruction could only be likened to military grade explosions or aerial bombardment. We can’t treat this casually as an accident caused by a truck. With the current security challenges facing this country, it is extremely premature to draw conclusions without conducting forensic investigation of this particular blast.
“Not even the accidental detonation of bombs at the Ikeja cantonment caused this scale of destruction and ruins. Government must conduct comprehensive investigation to establish if this was a crime or an accident.
“And there are questions begging for answers: Who drove the truck? What is the truck doing on a pipeline on Sunday morning? Was the gas plant opened on a Sunday? Was the content of the truck weaponised?
“And for the NNPC that has admitted some level of culpability by confirming that the primary explosion came from its gas truck, it should immediately initiate the process of providing remediation for the affected families and businesses while its officials found to have through negligence orchestrated this massive destruction, should be made to face the law.”
While commiserating with the families of those who lost their lives, properties and businesses, the group urged the governor to immediately set up a task force on pipeline security.
“It is unfortunate that the federal agencies saddled with the protection and security of pipelines have failed woefully. The governor as the chief security officer of the state needs to act in a way that will put an end to these perennial deaths and destruction since Lagos sits on a web of oil and gas pipelines,” ERA/FoEN quipped.
Controversy over Casualty Figure
At the end of the operation, LASEMA, which ordinarily should be the lead agency in emergency response in the state, pegged the official death rate at 22. That was after a lone body was brought out on Friday evening, nearly five days after the explosion.
In a statement made available to THISDAY over the weekend, the GM, Dr. Olufemi Oke-Osanyintolu, said the additional body was brought out as emergency responders were carrying out recovery and salvage operations on the incident site.
“The teams continue to carry out recovery and salvage operations at the incident site. An additional body was retrieved today bringing the total number of fatalities to 22,” he said, adding that, “468 people were displaced from their homes and 100 of them are now in the relief camp. One is still missing.”
But the Soba Landlords/Resident Association has since countered the claims by emergency responders. According to the representative of the chairman, they lost the BoT chairman, wife, children and over 30 others.
Reacting to the controversy surrounding the exact casualty rate, a senior personnel of one of the emergency agencies told THISDAY that, because there was no synergy, many bandied different figures until the stakeholders meeting was held with the deputy governor, where the figures were reconciled.
Admitting that there were loopholes in the collation process, he said the general figure of 20 was adopted until two additional bodies were recovered on Thursday and Friday, totaling the number to 22. He said the figure might increase, as excavation of the debris was not yet over.
Emphasising the Response Time
One of the challenges that impeded the rescue operation was the response time. Before emergency responders could reach the scene, locals had already begun rescue operations. At the end of the first day of the operation, responders with the help of locals had rescued 60 survivors and they were taken to Nigerian Navy Reference Hospital (NNRH) in Navy Town.
At Bethlehem Girls College, which was the first to be hit, before responders reached the scene, the locals had scaled the fence to bring the girls out, although some had sustained injuries by then. No student however died in the explosion, but their headmistress, Reverend Sister Henrietta Alokha and another member of staff, died while rescuing the girls.
Poor Synergy Between Responders
One glaring downside in the rescue operation was the lack of synergy between emergency responders and security agencies. Each wanted to outshine the other. Ordinarily, LASEMA, headed by Oke-Osanyintolu, should be the lead incident agency, but it was not so. Different agencies were granting their own interviews, which caused disparity in figures being churned out by the press.
Red Cross did their own press briefing, same with NEMA, fire service and navy. From the updates the agencies furnished reporters with on their respective social media platforms, the lack of synergy was palpable as they had conflicting figures and statistics.
It took a stakeholders meeting with the deputy governor for all agencies to harmonise their figures and present a unified account of the incident.
Speaking on strict condition of anonymity, one of the top officials in one of the agencies told THISDAY that the blame should be laid squarely on bad leadership.
“If the head is faulty, the entire body stands no chance. The supposed lead agency did not take charge, so everyone took advantage of the loophole to shine.
“In saner climes, he should have set up an incidence room, where all agencies will poll their observations and statistics, compare and contrast before feeding the public with it. But what we had was a leader that was busy granting interviews without getting his hands dirty in rescue operations.
“Look at the rescue of the young girl Favour by the Red Cross, we saw it on television and online like Nigerians did. Unity was sorely lacking in this operation.”
In another instance, a female FRSC corp member, who was trying to exert some measure of control on the crowd, had seized the phone of one of the spectators. It was a soldier, who grappled the phone from her and returned it to the owner, not without reprimanding her in public.
Challenges of the Fire Service
Although the fire services from private organisations and that of the Nigerian Navy had combined forces with the state and federal fire service, it was a Herculean task putting out the flames. Countless times, the fire would be doused only for a live flame to sprout from somewhere else. It was in the wee hours of the next day that the fire went out completely.
One of the complaints by the residents was that the fire trucks ran out of water countless times, and this, they said might be responsible for why the fire took time before it was put out completely.
Poor Crowd Control
In saner climes, when disasters of such magnitude happen, they quickly activate their crowd management strategies, which are not limited to first knowing and understanding the audience and type of environment or terrain the emergency responders would be going to.
With this, they plan in advance whether to attach themselves to the Red Cross, the police or any other security agencies, because depending on the environment, the people might be hostile. Wikipedia’s definition of crowd control states that, “it is the act of controlling in order to prevent the outbreak of disorder.”
But for the umpteenth time, disasters of this magnitude have again highlighted the nation’s poor crowd control management, which is a crucial factor in any emergency. With each disaster, the underbelly of poor control management keeps rearing its head. And with each disaster, a clarion call keeps coming about ensuring crash courses and enlightenment campaigns for security personnel in handling large crowds. At the last count, many had carelessly lost their lives through poor crowd control in Nigeria.
It was no different at Abule-Ado. The crowd was triple the size of the emergency teams on ground. From every nook and cranny, they trooped to the site, thus hampering rescue operation. For each person rescued, another died, because of the lack of air. All in the guise of trying to help, they posed more danger to the victims.
Attempts by officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) to create a semblance of sanity were rebuffed. Despite being told the presence of a large crowd meant more harm than good for the survivors, that still didn’t send a message to the crowd to thin out.
Rather, they kept swelling in their ranks. Some were there as spectators, while others were scavengers and hoodlums, who laid hands on whatever loot they could touch. Some focused on people’s houses that were destroyed and made away with what wasn’t destroyed by the fire, while others pickpocketed rescue workers and others in the crowd.
Therefore, such incidences question the role of emergency management agencies in handling such situations, because in cases of disaster, crowd management must take into account all the elements of planning, organising, directing and evaluating.
Now, the Emergency Workers
As is obtainable in all disasters, well-prepared emergency workers are mostly the solution. However, issues of timeliness and accessibility have been major impediments especially, for emergency workers.
Farinloye said one of the major challenges they faced was lack of access to the scenes of disaster, as well as the refusal of Lagosians to allow emergency workers access for prompt response.
“This is getting complicated and the problem of crowd milling around disaster scenes also makes interventions difficult and uncontrollable. Also, public and private motorists compound the situation by ignoring the emergency vehicle sirens and obstructing the movement of emergency responders across the state.
“Another challenge we face is the hostility towards the emergency workers. The attack keeps increasing, thereby inciting panic amongst emergency personnel as regards their safety. Such acts have become worrisome to emergency workers especially, as they are injured in some of these attacks.
“It is pertinent to state that emergency workers are human beings, who have families and will be mindful of their safety as they are struggling to save others’ lives. Therefore, threatening their safety will highly jeopardise their eagerness to respond to disaster in future if there is no attitudinal change by Nigerians.”
How K9 Units Can Help in Crowd Control
The K9 unit, which represents the canine section of security agencies, readily comes to mind, when it comes to crowd control. The function of K9 section is to prevent and detect crime through the use of dogs. They are also used for crowd control, perimeter surveillance and condoning.
In fact, the K9 dogs are said to perform the functions of about ten armed officers. The dogs are specially trained for security. Given the surge of distressed residents, sprinkled with a mix of the curious and the scavengers, the deployment of these dogs and their handlers, would have given emergency responders easy access to the disaster scenes as the dogs would have thinned out the crowd.
Finding Solutions, Going Forward…
In cases of disaster, crowd management must take into account all the elements of planning, organising, directing and evaluating. Thus, experts posit that for such to work, considerable emphasis should be placed on continuous sensitisation campaigns.
Experts also reckon that, this is where geomatics come in such as maps to ascertain the location and surrounding area, as well as obstacles that could influence crowd behaviour. According to Google, dimensions of roads, tunnels, bridges, stairs, and the likes are invaluable, even as aerial and satellite photographs could give additional information like, for example, Google street-view pictures.
However, to be of any use, this information has to be up to date – really up to date. Directing a crowd into a road not yet shown on maps is, literally, a recipe for disaster. Crowd control then rapidly morphs into disaster management. Constant updating of information should be a first priority for organisers.
In better run societies, the contact details of all relevant authorities will be on the switchboard to inform them of their movement and get additional information on the situation if need be.
With this, they are able to carry out risk assessment on-the-go. These assessments are an integral part of planning the crowd management strategy, as this would also help them identify potential dangers and plan how to keep people away from them.
Communication is another very important part of the operation. Next to internal connections between police and security officers at the site, emergency workers should not be left in the loop.
Overall, the lessons in this recent disaster are inherent and it is the fact that the emergency workers need to be proactive and not reactive. They must learn to work together instead of competing with each other, because a unified force would gain double the results and minimise the error margin.