From Ahamefula Ogbu:
Forty seven passengers and five crew members narrowly escaped death yesterday in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, when a Nigerian Air Force plane veered out of control after landing at the Port Harcourt International Airport.
The passengers, comprising journalists, officials of the National Emergency Management Agency as well as other agencies responsible for rescue operations in the country, ironically, were taking part in a simulated exercise to demonstrate the responsiveness of the relevant agencies to emergency situations.
Although no death was recorded from the incident, 10 of the passengers on board the flight sustained injuries, eyewitnesses who emerged from the crash informed THISDAY.
Mr. Onyebuchi Ezigbo, the THISDAY Abuja Bureau correspondent, who emerged from the crash unscathed but traumatized, confirmed that only one of the passengers sustained a fracture to his hand and was immediately rushed to Teme Clinic, Port Harcourt for medical attention.
The fuselage of the Air Force plane, he said, was damaged beyond recognition and was left inside the bush where it skidded to a halt in the mud.
The passengers, most of them officials of the Nigerian Air Force, Federal Fire Service, Nigerian Police Force, National Security and Civil Defence Corps, Federal Road Safety Commission and journalists were flown to Port Harcourt from Abuja aboard an Air Force Plane 950 of the G888 series.
Ezigbo explained that the plane landed safely but instead of decelerating a few seconds after hitting the tarmac, it kept accelerating at terrific speed until it overshot the runway.
Ezigbo and other passengers were thankful that the plane did not burst into flames, disclosing that the fire fighters at the airport responded promptly to the accident.
The Port Harcourt airport, located in the Omagwa community, some 30 kilometres away from the city, was immediately closed to traffic.
An Arik Airline aircraft from Abuja that wanted to land was turned back midair, however another Arik aircraft a few hours later was given clearance to land and take off from the airport.
Only last month, an Augusta reconnaissance helicopter belonging to the Nigerian Navy crashed at Isiokpo in Ikwerre Local Government, Rivers State, killing all the occupants.
NEMA’s director, Search and Rescue Operations, Air Commodore Yomi Bankole who later addressed the press at the airport said the exercise was meant to be a simulated one as they set out hoping to take steps to move from the textbook approach by getting some practical experience before the unfortunate incident occurred yesterday.
“It was an unfortunate incident. A plane we used veered off the runway,” he said, but promptly refused to speculate on the cause of the accident.
“In the aviation industry, we do not run into hasty conclusions until after investigations,” but he assured that a team of investigators from the Air Force has already taken over investigations and at the appropriate time the Air Force would provide insight into what caused the incident.
The director general of NEMA, Alhaji Audu Bida who was billed to be in Port Harcourt but had to go to Kano due to a fire incident in the northern city, when called on the phone said, “it is a sad event but we are only happy that no one lost his life.
“This is why we should all be very proactive. Incidents like this can never be predicted but it is always good that the country prepares very well to handle them whenever they occur.”
According to him, it was due to events like this that prompted NEMA into planning the exercise which was interrupted by the near mishap and led to the cancellation of the exercise. He promised that NEMA would review the entire incident and plug the loop holes.
Senate Committee chairman on NEMA and other search and rescue agencies, Senator Smart Adeyemi who was at the airport after the accident said the incident has “exposed how unprepared we are given the equipment on the ground.
“It is unbecoming that we have only fire fighting vehicles in the airport. Our only luck was that the plane did not burst into flames, otherwise, the equipment on the ground would not have contained the disaster.”
All 47 civilian passengers flew back to Abuja yesterday on board a 6.30pm Arik Airways flight, while the five-man Air Force crew was flown aboard a helicopter to the military hospital at the Air Force base, Port Harcourt.
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