By Gbenga Awomodu
Photo credit: CP-Africa.com
Yesterday, as I strolled out of the office premises onto the streets, my nasal cavity contracted a bit. The crisp dry smell of harmattan was back in the air. I felt the cold sensation the Christmas season often brings along from Santa’s home land. Xmas, for me, often comes with mixed feelings. Forty five months of the last five years have been spent as an undergraduate and most times at this season of the year, I just found myself in some lonesome emotional state. Often times, I would be back at home, where I hardly socialize. School always gave the opportunity to mingle and become so emotionally attached to friends, especially those met in school.
So, yesterday evening, I began to feel that sensation coming back, except that I’ll be having a lot to sort out during the forthcoming holiday period, so I should not really be that bothered. Anyways, yesterday I remembered what happened exactly five years ago, today! I had just finished attending the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA 2005) in Abuja, where I had represented Action Health Incorporated, a NGO I had worked with earlier in the year. I was to resume at the University the following month. There were two other young people on the team (Chidinma and Christopher), as well as some senior programme officers from the organisation. It had been a wonderful experience despite the thick fog associated with harmattan in the beautiful capital city.
That Saturday morning, December 10, 2005, we made our way into the local Wing of the Abuja International Airport, checked in our luggage and were soon waiting for the boarding announcement for our Chachangi Airlines flight back to Lagos. At the departure lounge, I fed my eyes with the goings-on even as I had a chat with the Chidinma and Chris. The lounge was very busy today, every seat is filled up and you could her most travelers having a gist. Particularly fascinating was the assembly of school children who were waiting for the flight to their respective destinations. Their uniforms were unique and I didn’t have the faintest idea what school they were from and I guess I was also too shy to ask.
The girls specially caught my attention – they were gorgeously dressed in their school uniforms (gowns) which had been tailored in such a skillful way I had never seen before. Each girl looked fabulous and smart in what looked like customized attire for each one of them. Many of them were bespectacled and I remember the one who was resting on another whilst reading from a book, perhaps one of those exotic novels she had bought on her last holiday trip abroad (just my imagination). Even a look at the boys too left me convinced they were a different breed. I could tell these kids were the bookworms, not even with the way they walked and the aura surrounding them.
After about two hours of waiting, it was time to leave. I could tell that most of them were Port Harcourt bound because, only a few of them left with us to board the Chachangi flight to Lagos. There had been an announcement about a plane to Port Harcourt soon to land and I assumed most of my new ‘friends’ were P/H-bound.
Photo credit: news.bbc.co.uk
The flight to Lagos was a little bumpy and I had some discomfort, but I could not put my finger to the source of that disturbance I sensed in my spirit. Maybe it was my stuffy nose, a result of moving around in the hazy Abuja weather for ten good days. So I thought. Even ‘portable’ Chidinma (a colleague and friend) who had thrown up on our flight to Abuja looked calmer and did not have to repeat her show of fright for height, like she almost did with elevators and soon avoided using them as much as possible throughout our stay in Abuja. (She later told me she felt strangely too, and had premonition something was about to happen). The pilot reassured us that all would be well despite the not-too-friendly weather condition that early afternoon. (I would rank it second only to the bumpiest of flights I have ever had, one from Maiduguri to Abuja in June 2007.) Less than two hours later I was home.
Surprisingly, when I got home, there was power supply; so after blowing as much of the Abuja trash from my nostrils and all, I settled on Grandma’s bed to watch the TV. Less than an hour into my relaxation, watching Channels Television, I saw a tiny strip of information. It was a News Alert about the Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145 scheduled between the Nigerian cities of Abuja (ABV) and Port Harcourt (PHC). At about 14:08 local time (13:08 UTC) on 10 December 2005, Flight 1145 from Abuja crash-landed on the runway at the Port Harcourt International Airport. The plane, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 with 110 people onboard, burst into flames.
Wow!!! I was shocked! That was the closest I had been to a plane crash. As the evening sung its dirge into the early night, I got more details. This unfortunate incident had taken the lives of so many Nigerian children, so many adults, all over 100 – less than two months after a plane crashed in Lisa village and another one crashed somewhere around Kaduna. Pastor (Mrs.) Bimbo Odukoya, a popular pastor at the Fountain of Life Church in Ilupeju whose assertive messages had impacted so many lives, bringing joy into otherwise broken homes and hope to the ‘hopeless’ in matters of the heart, had also been on that plane! She had reportedly suffered serious burns and eventually died. And the school children I saw earlier? Sixty one (61) of them from the Loyola Jesuit College (LJC), Abuja had been on board too! Sixty (60) of them lost their lives, leaving only one (1) survivor! Many passengers survived the initial impact but died in the resulting fire. Port Harcourt Airport had only one fire truck and no ambulances.
Photo Credit: CP-Africa.com
Some reporters in the Nigerian press referred to the school children as some of Nigeria’s best brains. I totally I agree! I have met a few of them and I do not need to be told by anyone else. Olufunke Faweya (a former head girl of the school whom I had met earlier that year) and Nmachi Jidenma (whom I met about three years after the incident), the founder of Celebrating Progress Africa, who has just been nominated for the Best Use of Advocacy at The Future Awards, Nigeria’s most respected Youth Awards, are living testimony of the caliber of products the LJC, Abuja, builds every year.
In retrospect, many questions come to mind about what should have been and what would have been today if those kids and the other passengers on that aircraft were still alive today, but I believe most people have considered them too; so I’m not going to bore you with that. I plead that we all resolve to lead purposeful lives and make the best of today, because we hardly have any control over what would come the next day: leaders in highly exalted positions whose decisions affect the populace in no small ways; followers who should look inwards and become proactive rather than just wait for the government and ‘our leaders’ to do the right things. I’ll leave you with the song presented last Sunday (5 December 2010) by the LJC choir. It was composed by Kechi Okwuchi, the only LJC survivor of that plane crash whose name was the 81st on the official manifest.
A tribute to the Angels
By Kechi Okwuchi (survivor of the Sosoliso Plane Crash)
It seems like yesterday
Full of excitement
We chatted non-stop
All the way to the plane
It seems like yesterday
We made plans, discarded them
Made new ones
Our future bright
It seems like yesterday
When we dropped out of the sky
To noise, to pain, to…silence
It seems like yesterday
That God had different plans
To take us to greater heights
A future not foreseen
On angels’ wings we flew
Racing past the clouds
Racing up to glory
Enveloped by His Grace
Though not with you in glory
I am a part of you
Left behind to continue the legacy
Left to run the race
As long as there is breathe in me
Dearest 60, you are not forgotten
Through the pain of yesterday
A million tomorrows are born.
© Kechi Okwuchi
Loyola Jesuit College recently launched a book about the incident. You can access more information here on CP-Africa.com.