I saw him. I saw him gather his peeling skin or what was left of it from the ground as he ran for his life with so much difficulty. I saw the pain in his eyes, and somehow I felt it. I felt a huge lump in my throat as I wondered how one moment could change a man’s life or looks, as it were, so suddenly. I looked down the street and saw more people like him running towards me and in that moment, I buried my face in my palm and I wept.
It was a beautiful morning, the 26th of December 2006. The previous day being 25th, Christmas day was very stressful, because my mother who had just given birth to my late sister, Eruemulor, had just been discharged and as such couldn’t help out much with the house chores. And so being the first child, it was my responsibility to oversee the cooking that was being done on that day. From helping my dad and grandmother slaughter and roast the goat that morning, to cooking with my grand mother, running errands to buy drinks for visitors and other things I can’t even mention, I was so exhausted and a night’s rest wasn’t enough for my young aching muscles.
I woke up on the 26th of December 2006, very tired and with a headache that seemed to be from the very dungeons of hell. As usual, my early morning chores started immediately after morning devotion.
Today wasn’t going to be any different and so, as sleepy as I was, I carried three buckets of water and a stool downstairs (of course one after the other). I was going to wash my daddy’s car. I was so short, I had to always use a stool to climb and wash the roof of the car.
I was halfway through when I noticed that a lot of people were moving towards the end of the street. I opened the gate and looked, just to be sure the world wasn’t coming to an end and my household, being left behind.
All I saw were people carrying Jerry cans, buckets of all sizes. But I didn’t understand why and so I ignored it. The most important thing to me, was that I had confirmed that there was no immediate danger to me or my family.
Not quite long after, one of my neighbours came in with two jerry cans very full. He got to his flat and his aunt whom he stayed with asked him in Yoruba,
“Ki lo ngbe ka kiri”
And he replied, “epo ni”
And then an argument ensued, all of a sudden she became very angry and asked him to return what he brought, back to where he brought it from.
I looked on from where I was, the only word I didn’t understand out of everything they said was “epo”. (Give me some credit, I am not Yoruba).
I finished washing and went upstairs to our flat. My dad was already preparing to go out. The argument I had heard that morning still lingered in my memory and I asked my dad…
“Daddy what does “epo” mean?”
My dad told me it meant oil and that confused me the more. I wondered why oil, probably, cooking oil, would cause that much “wahala”. At the end, I concluded that it was just because the aunt normally found faults in anything that was done by that boy.
About 2 hours later, my dad had gone out already, and my mum was about bathing the baby. All of a sudden, we heard people rushing into the compound screaming at the direction of our flat “Iyawo lawyer!!! Iyawo lawyer!!! Iyawo lawyer!!! Fire!!! Fire!!!” (meaning, wife of lawyer, wife of lawyer, wife of lawyer, fire, fire, fire).
We were alarmed, and we all rushed out to see what was happening and before we could understand what they were saying, I looked at the sky and saw a thick black smoke above the roof. I screamed and before I could say “Jack”, my mother went inside, brought out a box of clothes and we all ran out of the house, the compound, into the street.
We ran into the street and saw that it was full of people.
As the story was told me, a pipeline carrying petrol had been punctured in the middle of the night by unknown people and the fire was caused by another set of people who trooped there that morning to fetch fuel. It didn’t also help that there was fuel scarcity that period.
It was a sight to behold. I had never seen so many people in one place before (except at church). People were running helter skelter, some carried loved ones who had been burned to a certain degree, others were those burned themselves, they were naked or almost naked and some dragged their skins along with them. Others who had lost one person or the other or who couldn’t even find their relatives who had probably been part of those siphoning fuel, wailed on the street.
My family ran to a safe distance and watched. I looked opposite me and saw the owner of the street, he entered his car with his family and some personal effects and drove off.
While we were there waiting, watching, we heard another explosion around us, we didn’t wait to hear what caused it (the electricity transformer had blown as I was told later) and we ran again. This time, nobody on the street was sane. Everybody was running in one direction, everybody’s sole aim was to leave the street. My mother held the baby, and my two sisters, my grandma held me and the box of clothes and we ran again. This time we didn’t stop until we got to the house of my mother’s friend on the next street.
We were so panic stricken by what we had seen, I myself couldn’t stop shaking.
We were there till the end of the day and by evening, we went back home. The whole street was deserted. People had fled their homes. Thankfully, the fire had not spread down the street to our house. That night, evening devotion led by my father, took longer than it normally did. We were full of praises to God for sparing our lives. Families had lost their lives in the inferno, passers-by, workers at the mechanic village, etc. My dad had passed that place on his way out that morning, we were just thankful to God. It could have been another tale.
The next day, I begged my grandma to take me to the scene of the fire. I knew if I had asked my mother, she would refuse so I waited until she was asleep before asking grandma. After much persuasion, and because she too wanted to satisfy her curiosity, we went there.
The whole mechanic and carpentry village which was located close to the place where the incident took place was burnt down. Cars, houses, shops, people’s means of livelihood had been burnt down!!!! Newspapers had said more than 200 people had lost their lives that day but on getting there and seeing all those body parts, I knew there were more unaccounted for. There were body parts all around. I picked up a stick so I could dig around very well and identify what was what.
I saw something white and pointed to my grandma. “Grandmother, see a pair of hand gloves” only for her to collect my stick and turn what seemed like a pair of hand gloves around. Lo and behold, we saw nails…fingernails on it. A person’s body had so badly burnt that I mistook his hands for gloves.
The things I saw there, the body parts I saw, the people I saw who were badly burnt, I still see them in my dreams, till now. When we moved out of that street the next year, I was so glad, because that incident had scarred me so much.
That incident made me realize that no matter what we have or who we are, everything can be lost in an instant. We are responsible for our actions and are alive only because of the grace of God.