A weekend of disasters: An emergency officer’s account

A weekend of disasters: An emergency officer’s account

Nigeria has continued to experience natural and man-made disasters such as militia attacks, fire-outbreak, flood, rainstorm, road accidents among others, mostly on weekends lately.

The National Emergency Management Agency is responsible for coordinating the activities of response agencies should a disaster occur, especially when it overwhelms the capacity of the affected state or local government authorities. Since NEMA is not a first responder, emergency management therefore requires interventions from major stakeholders such as the security agents, safety and volunteer organisations.

Like on every weekend, as a public relations person in NEMA, I was on the alert when on Sunday, June 3, 2012, a message was received at noon about a suicide bombing incident in Bauchi State. After ensuring that rescue workers had been mobilised to the scene, news alert was issued to editors.

Few hours later while responding to subsequent press enquiries, an editor from a foreign media sent a text message: “Shuaib, can you confirm an air crash in Lagos now?” I have no reason to pretend that sometimes the media actually alert security and emergency organisations on disaster occurrences.

After confirming from the NEMA Mission Control Centre that there was a crash involving a Dana airline at Iju Ishaga area of Lagos State and that rescue officers had moved to the scene, text messages were issued to the media on the search-and-rescue efforts. That evening, the Director-General of NEMA, Muhammad Sani-Sidi, led specially-trained search-and-rescue officers from Abuja in an hour-flight to Lagos.

Since my job is to provide adequate and timely information, I kept in touch with members of Media and Information Committee on Emergency Management for updates, which were relayed immediately to the media through phone calls, text messages and emails. The regular updates were to guard against misconception, misrepresentation and to douse the tension among panicky citizens on the incident.

At 6.45am the following day, I was on my way to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja in order to board a flight to Lagos, leaving behind a family that understands that working in NEMA is all about responding to disasters irrespective of time and place.

But on that day, my family was apprehensive and prayed for my safety while flying on the same route used by the crashed airline. They appreciate the demanding nature of disaster management but at that moment, they felt resigning was better than experiencing the fate that befell victims of Dana air crash.

On a normal day, the road to Abuja airport is usually busy with traffic, but on that Monday, after the air crash, it was almost desolate. The few of us who were at the counter to buy tickets were not unmindful of the expressions on the faces of on-lookers who could see us as unserious adventurers travelling by air less than 24 hours after an aircraft on the same route had crashed with its passengers.

Though there were several airline operators at the counter, like a Day-of-Judgment, only one particular airline was patronised. Many factors were considered for the long queue behind the preferred airline: safety record, strict obedience to flight schedules and courteous services.

As we boarded the plane, I realised during our conversations that most of us had urgent appointments while others were under directives from their organisations to be in Lagos that morning. But most of the passengers seemed to be truly religious; they were either clinging on to a Bible or reciting the Quran.

When the air hostess gave safety instructions, everyone was very attentive like worshippers listening to a sermon from a preacher on the pulpit. Any slight turbulent was greeted with a terrifying scare, momentary grief and relief. The passengers completely ignored air hostesses who moved around to serve the usual snacks and drinks.

In fact, the successful landing on Lagos airport was accompanied by applauses and praises to the Almighty.

A brief meeting was held in the office of the Head of Communication, Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority in liaison with other spokespersons for agencies in the aviation sector. Information centres were designated at the airport and at the scene to gather information and respond to general enquiries by relatives of victims and the media.

The sights and scenes from the crash were only meant for the lion-hearted. A female volunteer who studied disaster management in a foreign university fainted twice while lifting a burnt corpse whose limps were falling apart. Some of the corpses looked intact even without bruises as they were motionless on their seatbelts.

From their costumes, documents and other identifications recovered from the scene, it was easy to deduce the personage of the victims; religious people, pagans, government officials, business executives, fun-seekers, the young and the old. This made one to realise that anyone could be a victim no matter the backgrounds, beliefs and smartness.

In the spirit of Corporate Social Responsibility, some private organisations were on ground immediately after the plane crash, volunteering free quality services throughout the period of rescue operation.

A notable construction company provided sophisticated equipment to lift parts of the aircraft and systematically expanded some structures for the search and rescue efforts. A telecoms operator volunteered and broadcast useful messages on the situation and also promoted toll-free emergency call number: 0800-CALL NEMA. That day, the call centre received thousands of calls every hour.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the plane crash.

While the emergency workers were prompt in their response, mobs turned the scene to cinema as some of them were either taking pictures or stealing. The unwholesome mob-action prevented the rescuers from having immediate access to the site until reinforcement came from well-armed security agencies in controlling the crowd.

As a PR person, I was overwhelmed by the positive coverage of the incident by the media. The media have not only been very responsive with timely and objective updates, they were never induced for the exceptional coverage of the event. As government organisations, we will continue to provide sincere and accurate information on our efforts rather than using naked propaganda of defending the indefensible. For now, every weekend we are on full alert.

•Yushau Shuaib, Head, Public Relations, National Emergency Management Agency, wrote in via [email protected]