Fire at army dump leaves 500 dead after shrapnel is blasted across city  

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As daylight broke yesterday, the full horror of Nigeria's weapons explosion disaster became apparent with at least 500 dead, thousands more homeless and the nation's leader struggling to explain the disaster to his angry people.

Rescuers pulled hundreds of corpses from two canals near the Ikeja barracks in the sprawling city of Lagos. They had fled in panic after an ammunition store blaze started on Sunday night and continued into the morning.

One blast almost scuppered a visit from President Olusegun Obasanjo. After quelling rumours of a military coup, he visited the disaster zone to be met by a furious crowd chanting "President go inside!" as they gesticulated towards the still-burning arms store.

Mr Obasanjo removed his shoes and climbed on to a car to offer promises of assistance. He was stopped by yet another explosion, which knocked back some protesters but left the one-time military leader standing firm.

Reports said the fire started in a market then spread to Ikeja, setting off a chain of explosions that sent fireballs into the night sky. Exploding shells and cluster bombs sent out waves of shrapnel that ripped roofs off houses, destroyed a school and church and forced a hospital evacuation. Windows were shattered at the nearby international airport and in the city centre 10 miles away.

But the main cause of death was drowning. As the arms exploded, crowds of terrified residents from the adjoining Maryland area stampeded through the dark into two deepwater canals, Oke-Afa and Pako. Many could not swim, or were caught in weeds.

Thousands gathered on the canal banks yesterday to watch rescue workers pull corpses from the water, many of them children. An estimated 500 people drowned.

Ikeja barracks, home to many soldiers and their families, played an important role in Nigerian post-independence. It is the main armoury for T-55 and Leopard tanks used by Nigeria in recent peace- keeping missions.