UPDATE - 18 people have been confirmed dead by the Lagos state Commissioner for Health, Jide Idris,
Imagine being a mother of four, all under the age of 10, attending the same school, watching them grow, investing your earnings into them, listening to their dreams, hopes and aspirations, to lift you from the slums of Lagos Island.
Imagine one day, they leave for school, only a few yards away from home only to hear the building, which plays home to their school has collapsed.
Imagine being a regular Lagosian, going about your business to your day job as a bricklayer, only to suddenly see the 3-storey building you saw standing moments earlier, sink into rubble, with people battling for life and a host of children screaming in shock and panic, not knowing what just happened.
You have no choice but to jump in and claw your way through half-century old pillars and mud-bricks, hoping to salvage something.
Only a week ago in the same building, a mother had a naming ceremony for her infant child. This is the story of Lagosians who reside on Itafaji Street, off Apatira, Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria today. Around 10:00 am on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, the 3-storey building, just opposite the signpost for Apatira Street collapsed by itself, unhindered.
Trapped in it; a was a mother and her infant, a pregnant woman (now reported deceased), a blind man, who had gone there to see his wife and child, and most importantly, about 120 school children – presumably under the age of 10.
These children attend Whole Heads Nursery and Primary Schools, which occupies the third floor of that building. Their headmistress, popularly called, Aunty Esther was one of the first persons recovered from the scene, with her leg broken.
At the scene, the mother of four stood close to another mother whose kid was trapped inside the rubble. Both mothers offered unspoken mutual support. They gazed into each other, not knowing whether to cry. They feared the worst which remains unknown.
As at 4 pm, only 13 children had been recovered with three looking unconscious, maybe worse. The sight of one of the first children recovered will make the average man sink to his knees in agony. Not because organs were displaced, but because of the sheer compassion inherent in every man. About 100 people were still stuck under the rubble.
As Pulse spoke with Oluyomi, one of the first rescuers on the scene, he claimed he heard the news on the radio, around 10:07 am. He claimed he ran down to ita-faaji, leaving his business just to help in any way he can.
He says, “We had to break stones to get to some of the kidsout. As we speak, one woman is trapped within two stones and a pillar. Lifting the stones isn’t hard, but if they are lifted, the pillar will fall and crush her.”
Whenever any child was brought out, it was met with a chorus of cheers from the multitude of people camped outside the building, making ita-faaji a ground where people called most for God today, in all his forms.
Mothers wailed as cheers were met with a realization that the children they cheered for had passed on, arms flailing, screaming for life to fall back into human bones.
The bricklayer we spoke about earlier is Kamal, had earlier been in the rubble as a rescuer, but got weak – not for lack of physical strength, but – for a lack of emotional strength. He leaned on an improvised kiosk, later demolished to accommodate the heavy lifting trailer.
Kamal told Pulse in Yoruba that, “I had been on a bike and had passed the road in front of the house just seconds earlier, only to see the house sunk after I heard a thud and saw dust follow. I was going to work, but now, I can’t go anymore. I can barely watch this because the woman with the house beside this (collapsed) building had been complaining to its landlord that the house was ‘throwing stones.’”
In Yoruba, when the saying a house is ‘throwing stones’ comes up in conversation, it means the house is disintegrating and some sand particles from it are falling. Apparently, the woman who owns the house beside this building had complained to its landlord for years.
By this time, the fourth and fifth children were being rescued, and an interesting development came forth. Even worse, there was a demand for "oxygen!" at the site.
The Landlord of the collapsed building
Akinrola (not real name) told Pulse in Yoruba that, “The landlord of this house inherited it. A few months ago, the house got marked for demolition by members of the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA) but all of a sudden, they never came back. Rumour has it that he went and paid the members of this agency to leave his house alone, but since they never came back, it is then believable."
He continued in Yoruba, now backed up by two of his younger friends, standing with him, “Under the (Babatunde Raji) Fashola government, any building marked was destroyed. If you dared build it back, the house gets destroyed and the land becomes government property as punishment for disobedience.”
Later, one of Akinrola’s younger friends said that since the building collapsed, the landlord has been missing.
The arrival of the heavy lifting truck and Governor Ambode
An earth-Mover truck had been on the ground to take the rubble apart, unknowingly standing on a collapsed part of the building. However, there was no other way to remove the decking slab, that stands in the way of taking a lot of things apart unless the earth mover sacrificed something.
Around 2 pm, about four hours after the collapse, struggling with one earth mover and with rumours flying around that when residents of Ita-faaji went to seek help from the governmental custodians of these trucks, they were told to take a slip from Lagos Island all the way to Alausa, a heavy lifting truck showed up.
This was in the thick of the afternoon heat that even people above ground struggled with. One then wants to ask what the government’s responsibility for human life means.
The Governor of Lagos state, Akinwunmi Ambode arrived around 3 pm, and stood somewhere off the scene itself, trying to calm an unsettled and volatile crowd. After assessing the scene for approximately 20 minutes, he left. What happened next was, Ambode was pelted with numerous sachets of pure water as he left the scene.
The Governor later made a statement on Twitter.
Pulse spoke to a man named Rahman and a woman who said her name is Sixteen. Rahman was employed to clean the toilet beside the collapsed house. He was saved by only stepping outside the house to brush his teeth with a tree branch Yoruba calls, ‘pako.’
As Rahman spoke to Pulse, he was visibly unsettled and still in shock. He was barely coherent and struggled to understand questions. Rahman’s friend, Bayo was still stuck in the building.
Rahman told Pulse in Yoruba that, “I was outside, brushing my teeth, only to look back and see the building on the toilet.” He also tells Pulse that the collapsed house got renovated yearly with its back full of cracks.
On the other hand, Sixteen, as she is famously called owns a shop on the ground floor of the house, where she sells raw food and provision. She told Pulse, “I had been sick throughout yesterday, only to get a call from someone on this street that something had happened. I rushed down, only to see this.”
By this time, a man had been brought out in a body bag, his identity kept a secret as the crowd wailed and cried, praying it wasn’t someone they knew.
The governmental problem
Just a few yards from Ita-faaji Street is Mercy Street, where a house collapsed in similar circumstances in Lagos only two years ago. Now, the same thing has happened.
Lagos Island historically was a business district. Thus, a lot of influential Lagosians have Lagos Island links. Sadly , it is home to some of the oldest, weakest and interwoven homes in Lagos State. One disaster could easily transmit into another. It is a popular worry. Yet, nothing has been done about it.
M.M Olabinjo, told Pulse that, “A lot of homes here are like that one (that just collapsed). Homes with no pillars, past the ground floor. About two other buildings like this are getting constructed down the road. ” He pointed north.
Olabinjo then proceeded to give the government a dressing down. He feels the government has been inept in guaranteeing the face of the people. This is interesting because after the infamous Lekki Gardens incident, the Lagos State Government promised to be tougher on homes and institute quality control measures that seem abstract at this time.
In truth, it is not something the government doesn’t deserve. In fact, when one considers that a school was approved on the third floor of such a rickety house and heads are not yet rolling in the Ministry of Education, it shows the ineptitude at both governmental and the less powerful bureaucracy of government agencies.
At this time, Pulse has reached out to Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA) to confirm whether they truly knew about the state of the building, but as of now, the Pulse has not received a reply.