EIGHT YEARS AFTER THE TRAGIC CRASH OF SOSOLISO AIRLINES FLIGHT 1145, WHICH KILLED 107 PASSENGERS, INCLUDING 60 STUDENTS OF LOYOLA JESUITS COLLEGE, ABUJA, THERE ARE STILL NO IMPROVEMENT IN RESCUE AND EMERGENCY OPERATIONS IN THE COUNTRY, WRITES CHINEDU EZE
The pain and anguish is like yesterday. The parents of the 60 students of Loyola Jesuits College, Abuja who died in the Sosoliso Airlines flight 1145 that crashed at the Port Harcourt Airport on afternoon of December 10, 2005 still feel guilty about the death of their children. They still lash at their conscience, saying, â€œIf I had allowed her to travel by road she wouldnâ€™t have diedâ€. This pain will be endless. Because these children were born for tomorrow, but they died; and their parents witnessed their death. It is painful.
Since after their death in the crash, there have been other similar tragic crashes. In the Dana Air crash that happened in June 2012, a father, mother and their four children died. It was gory. It was gruesome.
Eight years after the demise of these innocent children, Loyola Jesuit College recently organised a memorial symposium and launch of a N500 million fund for the â€œ60 Angels Memorial Staff Residenceâ€ in memory of the students of the school who lost their lives in the crash. The event particularly brought to the fore an appraisal of what Nigerian has done in the area of search and rescue. Although the accident happened at the airport, the fire fighters then were incapable of reaching the accident site in time and therefore could not rescue the passengers. It does take longer time, sometimes days, to locate a crash site outside the airport in Nigeria. When Bellview flight crashed at the village of Lisa in Ogun State, it took about 48 hours before the crash site was located.
The longest in the recent time was the crash of Wings Aviation aircraft, Beechcraft 1900 D in March 2008, which was flying to Bebi airstrip from Lagos. It took six months before the carcass of the aircraft and the bones of the three persons on board were discovered in a valley located at Obanliku in Cross River State.
Although it is the responsibility of the Nigeria Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to locate site of such accidents, but the 2012 Dana crash was devastating because even when the aircraft crashed at Lagos suburb, it took relatively longer time for rescue team to come. By then onlookers had taken over the site and obstructed emergency operation.
NEMA was exposed in 2008 for not being adequately equipped but the agency seems to have improved since then, but not to the level that it could effectively manage aircraft emergencies. It is yet to have sophisticated equipment to locate crash sites. However, with the fully developed Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) and the multi-lateration systems the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) is building in the Niger Delta area and the North East of Nigeria, it would be easier now to locate aircraft accident sites.
These two systems provide surveillance and cover the whole of Nigeriaâ€™s airspace, which means that they can identify and locate aircraft in distress and where it has crashed. After the crash of Beechcraft 1900D owned by Wings Aviation in 2008, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) insisted that every aircraft operating in Nigeriaâ€™s airspace must have Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT). This equipment sends signals when aircraft crashes, which help to locate the area an accident happened.
Corruption in governmentâ€¦
The Bishop of Sokoto Diocese Matthew Kukah in a keynote speech attributed air disaster and other disasters in the country to the corruption in government and said that what the country is reaping â€œis what the hand of fate has dealt us, namely, a tale of tragedy, misfortune and disaster which has come to be known as governance in Nigeria.â€
He wondered how other countries, especially in the third world like India was able to build a reliable, profitable rail system, but â€œSadly, in our own situation, the areas of our greatest failure such as electricity and public infrastructure have proved to be the most lucrative for the operators.
â€œToday, power and transportation have become the bottomless pits into which our resources are being sunk. Yet, the challenge is not so much over the commitment of those trying to turn our sad condition around, but what to do with those in the bureaucracy and outside of it who have come to see our collective suffering as the basis for their enrichment.â€
Keeping memories of the departedâ€¦
Kukah said Okweuchi and one other person who survived the crash might have survived so they would live to tell their story. â€œWe can only join her (Okweuchi) and the other families to pray that God keeps their memories alive in a more positive way than evoking sorrow and fear. What lessons can we take away?â€ he asked.
He commended the plan to institutionalise the memory of the victims of the crash and commended the action of the Ministry of Aviation for erecting a cenotaph for the victims of the Dana Air crash.
â€œI think we should do something even if not of the same magnitude, but at least we may need to find a mural that has the names of victims of these disasters either on location or an accessible place.â€
Kukah warned that Nigeria should have to move beyond the issues of seeing appointments to key ministries like aviation as means of political patronage.
â€œThe government deserves to be commended for some of the changes that we are seeing in the aviation sector. There is a lot still to be done, but we must focus on seeking greater safety measures and not be carried away by politics,â€ he emphasised.
He said serious attention should be paid to the regulatory body, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) because â€œvery often, it is their greed, nepotism and lack of patriotism that lead to the non-application of the rules,â€ adding that â€œin a country characterised by a culture of let-us-just manage, danger looms every time the standards are lowered. This is why those who fail to enforce the rules deserve to be exposed and punished.â€
Improved Airport Infrastructureâ€¦
Kukah, however, acknowledged the improvement taking place in the aviation sector and urged that this should continue in order to ensure Nigeria operates safe air transport as obtained in other parts of the world. â€œClearly, our eyes can see some changes that we have not seen before in terms of public infrastructure.
Many of us are confusing politics with reality. I wished that those who came before left us some noticeable legacies whether it is in the number and quality of airports, road networks and so on. We must continue to criticise public officers, but we must also acknowledge when efforts have been made so that those coming behind can do even better.â€
The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese emphasised that air safety is a matter of science not politics â€œor dubious spirituality and prayer warriors. Of course, pray we must, but the good Lord helps those who help themselves.â€
Although a lot of improvements have taken place in the aviation industry but not much have been done in the area of search and rescue.
The Commissioner of Accident Investigation Bureau and Prevention (AIBP), Captain Usman Muktar said that the Bureau is collaborating with National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to improve search and rescue for easy location of air accident scene and urgent recue of the victims.
Rescue and Emergencyâ€¦
Okwuchi in her presentation at the memorial said the failure of the fire service at the airport to respond to emergency occasioned by the accident was one fundamental reason why so many of the passengers died. She said the first fire vehicle that arrived at the scene did not have water!
That accident and others seemed to have woken the sector to improve the fire department of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). For an improved safety environment the World Bank assisted Nigerian in procuring fire tenders to the airports. Port Harcourt now has more than four fire tenders and the runway and its extensions.
â€œI want to mention that while here (at the University of St. Thomas, a private Catholic college in Houston, Texas, USA), I have heard about every single plane crash that has occurred in Nigeria since 2005. In fact, there was the ADC plane crash that happened exactly a year after, on my birthday incidentally. When it happened (this was in 2006), I was catapulted back to my own memories of all the pain, the sorrow, the tears, the loss, and I thought about all the families and friends of the 107 victims from my accident who are still grieving today,â€ Okweuchi said.
She remarked that nothing much has changed, â€œWith each plane crash I hear about, a new pain is born. As my own memories replay in my mind, I know that somewhere back home a new set of families are grieving because they have lost loved ones. Then another accident and still more families in pain.â€
Okweuchi who has been on long-term treatment since the crash because of serious fire burn, said for improvement made in the aviation sector to work, other related factors like emergency and rescue must also work.
â€œThe first thing that comes to mind is rescue. After the plane I was on crashed, the first fire truck that made it to the scene of the crash had no water. This shouldnâ€™t be. Countries with developed aviation industries should have good emergency response systems. The second factor would be aircraft quality; the airworthiness of the planes we allow in our skies. There should be a standard for the quality of planes allowed to fly,â€ she added.
Bishop Kukah in his speech referred to the landing of United Airlines plane on the Hudson River, after the two engines of the Airbus aircraft picked two geese on take-off and could not fly to the nearest airport. So the pilot decided to ditch the aircraft at the Hudson River in Manhattan, New York.
What made that incident historical, besides the bravery of the pilot, was that everybody in the aircraft was rescued; only one person was slightly injured. That was the hallmark of effective emergency and rescue system.