It was an emotionally charged milieu as sympathisers condoled with families whose loved ones were among the dead and injured victims of a church building which collapsed during service in Okpanam in the Oshimili North Local Government Area of Delta State on Tuesday.
The one-storey building collapsed around 6pm while worshippers of Salvation Ministries, Okpanam, were observing a 21-day fasting and prayer.
The church’s children section was said to have been affected and children trapped during service.
It was gathered that the church building in existence for over 10 years was initially designed as a plaza before the church occupied the upper chamber and remodelled to suit its use.
It caved in while it was undergoing reconstruction by a new owner who recently bought the property.
It was also alleged that the new owner of the building asked the tenants to vacate the place and he refunded some of them.
The tenants were said to have vacated the building. But the pastor-in-charge of the church reportedly refused to leave on the grounds that the church’s rent would expire in February 2022. The development was said to have triggered the owner of the property to commence reconstruction at the building before its collapse.
The church is one of the branches of the church led by Pastor David Ibiyeomie based in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. A statement by the church when Ibiyeomie visited the injured in a hospital indicated that the owner of the building authorised the removal of a pillar in the structure during church service.
The statement was titled, “Press release on the building collapse at Okpanam, Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria as Senior Pastor, David Ibiyeomie visits victims at the hospital.”
It read in part, “Following the collapse of a rented church building by Salvation Ministries in Okpanam, Delta State emerging facts reveal that: The facility, whose rent was renewed in November 2021, was sold with its subsisting tenancy in December 2021. The new owner without prior notice to the tenants, Salvation Ministries, entered the church facility to take custody of the building.
“The church, shocked by the development, approached its landlord, the former owner, who confirmed the sale of the building and offered to refund the subsisting rent.Attempts by the church authorities to negotiate with the new owner did not yield any result as he was adamant on recovering his property. Things came to a head, when during the church service he authorised the removal of a pillar in the building.”
The church in the statement said the action of the new owner of the building was the immediate cause of the collapse which resulted in avoidable losses.
The church called on the state government and the Nigerian Police to invite the new owner of the building in the course of their investigations on the cause of the incident.
Men of the Delta State Emergency Management Agency, fire service and the state police command were part of the rescue team as trapped children cried under the rubble of the collapsed building.
Many women and children were conveyed into ambulances which took them to the Asaba Specialist Hospital and the Federal Medical Centre, Asaba, for medical attention.
The rescue operation that lasted over nine hours ended around 2am on Wednesday with four persons dead and some injured.
Among the survivors were Mrs Chidinma Ugochukwu, her seven-month-old and three-year-old children.
She told our correspondent at the scene of the disaster on Wednesday that worshippers during the church service were about to receive the Holy Communion when the building caved in.
Ugochukwu “After the preaching by the man of God and it was time for Holy Communion, the man of God told us that it was not for everybody but for people with critical conditions, those with illnesses such as diabetes, HIV and cancer. We were there listening, then all of a sudden we discovered that there was a great noise. It was like magic, what we saw was that everybody was bending down. My baby was at my back and the older one was in the children’s department.
“After the incident, many people came to rescue us. I was there trying to bring the baby out of my back. One man said I should give him the baby and I did. I started looking for the elder brother and later he was brought alive. Many people were injured. Our bags, phones and footwear were lost but we thank God for saving our lives.
“Many people survived and I thank God for the Delta State Government because immediately the building collapsed, rescue team comprising fire service and others came.’’
Another survivor, Mr Grace Ibe, said the service was ongoing when the building collapsed with a loud noise.
‘’We were clapping and praying and about to take Holy Communion when suddenly we heard a crack and the building collapsed on us including the children section.’’
She said the church was observing its New Year 21-day fasting and prayer, adding that members of the church came to break the day’s fasting with a communion service when the incident happened.
A woman identified only as Mrs Okonkwo who wailed at the scene said her three children were among those trapped in the building.
She said, “I thank God for saving my three children. Two have been discharged while the other one is currently receiving treatment at the hospital.’’
A father of two victims, Mr. Paul Wessey, told our correspondent at the hospital that his children were responding to treatment.
Wessey said he was in the office on the day of the incident, noting that immediately he got a distressed call, he ran to various hospitals in search of his children.
He added, “Two of my sons and two of my sister in-law’s sons were affected. I was not in church that day. I was in the office. It was a terrible experience. It’s not something to even talk about. I thank God that it is an injury and with time, it will heal. I did x-ray for my four-year-old and we took him to the theatre for them to clean the injury.”
Also, Mrs Rachael Odum, who also survived alongside her three children aged nine, seven and four, stated that the congregation was about to receive Holy Communion when tragedy struck.
Odum said, “I was there on Tuesday evening with my family trapped inside. I returned on Wednesday to check on our members. My family is safe. I have three children. At the time, the service was about to close. We were at the point of taking Holy Communion when the building collapsed and we got trapped.
“When the building crashed on us, nobody could run because we all went down. I was only shouting, ‘Lord, save me, save my children’. Everybody was just shouting, ‘Lord save us.’ When help came for us, I managed to rescue my children with minor injuries. But the majority of the people in the building came out alive.”
The collapsed one-storey building triggered commotion at the neighbouring Asaba as people wept.
When our correspondent visited the Federal Medical Centre, Asaba and the Asaba Specialist Hospital, on Wednesday, many victims had been discharged while about 11 victims were still at various wards receiving treatment.
At the FMC, one of the victims identified only as favour was still at the children ward and another identified as Anastasia, a 30-year-old lady was seen at the orthopaedic ward.
The Chairman, Medical Advisory Committee of the FMC, Dr Emmanuel Ezunu, said that seven victims were brought to the centre and only one was brought dead.
Ezunu said, “We have six patients in the FMC. One was brought dead unidentified and we have already moved her to the morgue waiting for them to identify the corpse.
“Three victims; Sophia,8, Mophia 3, and Sunshine have been discharged while three others are receiving treatment including a 30-year-old lady, Anastasia, who is at the orthopaedic ward.’’
Giving an update about the incident, the spokesperson for the police in the state, DSP Bright Edafe, said that the rescue operation was over.
He said, “Eighteen persons were initially rescued, four discharged, 11 still receiving treatment, four deaths recorded which includes two children and two women. Their names are unknown for now. Kindly debunk the rumours making the rounds that 10 people died. That is not correct.”
The state government on Wednesday announced the constitution of a panel of enquiry to look into the immediate and remote cause(s) of the collapsed building.
The state Deputy Governor, Mr Kingsley Otuaro, said, shortly after visiting the accident scene that survivors were receiving treatment at the Asaba Specialist Hospital, Asaba.
“First and foremost, we want to thank God Almighty for what has happened. In my inspection visit, we found out that it could have been worse. What I saw was almost a total collapse. We had many children upstairs when the building came down completely. I will not be competent to tell you what is the cause of the collapse of the building.
“We assure Deltans and everyone that the report of this particular incident will be made public when it finally comes out. We have unfortunately recorded four losses and like I said, it could have been worse.’’
Otuaro noted that the state government would be an integral part of what happened and do everything within its powers to ensure that all was well with the respective families.