Hundreds drown fleeing munitions blasts

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of bodies were pulled from a Nigerian canal today after a fire at a munitions depot triggered a series of large explosions, destroying homes and businesses over a wide area in Lagos

Hundreds of bodies were pulled from a Nigerian canal today after a fire at a munitions depot triggered a series of large explosions, destroying homes and businesses over a wide area in Lagos.

Panicked residents ran and jumped into the Oke Afa canal as they fled the blasts at the nearby Ikeja military base. Many of the victims apparently didn't realise how deep the water was and drowned, witnesses said.

Dozens of explosions sent a fireworks display of artillery ammunition hundreds of yards into the sky.

The blasts shook the west African nation's commercial capital and shattered windows at the international airport six miles away, continuing into the early morning hours.

Rescuer workers and volunteers in small fishing boats used long poles to search the canal for bodies today.

The independent Rhythm FM radio station reported more than 200 bodies were pulled from the water. At least 35 corpses lay on the grass, as others were driven away in trucks.

Thousands of people gathered on the water's edge, crying and wailing each time rescuers located a body.

Strewn among the water hyacinth that covered the canal in places were a woman's pink shoe, a baby's slipper and a peace of bright orange and red cloth.

It was not immediately clear how many people died in the blasts themselves.

Brigadier General George Emdin said there was "absolutely no one killed." But Mustafa Igama, a soldier at the base, described seeing "so many dead bodies" as he fled the scene.

President Olusegun Obasanjo toured the base today, addressing hundreds of soldiers and their families who had fled the barracks. He promised the military would investigate the causes of the accident.

Gesticulating angrily, members of the crowd chanted, "President, go inside!" They were referring to the munitions dump several hundred yards away, where flames and sharp cracking noises could still be seen and heard, even after the fires and major blasts had died down.

Obasanjo, who removed his shoes and climbed onto the roof of a car to address the crowd, promised to "organise displaced people, relocate people and reunite children with their families."

A small blast interrupted Obasanjo's speech, jolting jittery crowd members, although the president stood firm.

Olusegun Ajayi, an officer at the military base, said his home was destroyed and his three small children were missing.

"My wife and I don't know where they are," he said in tears.

As he spoke, flames were still licking the walls of a school inside the base.

Police said the blasts had apparently been touched off by an explosion at a nearby petrol station.

Oil–rich Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, and Lagos – with more than 12 million residents – is its largest city.

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