Erecting structures under Right of Way (ROW) of power transmission and distribution cables is a dangerous project. However, because of poor law enforcement and negligence, there is a proliferation of such structures across the country. Speaking with safety professionals, VICTORY BERNARD examines the implications behind the viewing centre electrocution in Calabar, Cross River State on April 20.
To ardent followers of football, it is a game of pleasure that can help ease tension that has built up during the course of a day, week or month. But that perception may have been permanently altered among football lovers in Calabar, especially in Nyaghassang community, where a monumental tragedy swept through like a plague.
According to various reports, football fans converged on a viewing centre in Akpandem Street, Atimbo area of Nyaghassang to watch the return leg of a Europa league quarter final match between Manchester United and Anderlecht.
As expected, the zinc-made structure was teeming with dozens of fans who were out to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars.
Amid the end-to-end action by the two opposing teams, there was no premonition of intending danger lurking in the corners until it struck. The shout of fans cheering their favorite club turned to wails and groans of death. At the end, no fewer than 30 lives were reportedly lost.
Luckily, a fan that was inside the building when tragedy struck survived to tell the gruesome story. According to him, a transformer near the viewing centre located in the Iyang-Esu area of Calabar Municipality LGA exploded during the match and caused a high-tension cable to drop on the viewing centre.
“It happened during the match between Manchester United and Anderlecht. I heard a deafening bang. I rushed out to see what was happening. When I turned back to go inside the viewing centre, I saw a cable coming down on the centre and this electrocuted the viewers in the hall.
“It was a horrible sight to behold. I wish I didn’t come out to watch the match. Come to think of it, I have DSTV at home but I enjoy watching at viewing centres. I could have been dead. I can’t believe that the people I was chatting and joking with a few minutes ago are all gone in a most anguishing way. This world is vain,” The Punch quoted the survivor as saying.
Another account had it that there was a loud explosion from the transformer, there was a power cut and the cable landed on the roof of the viewing centre. It added that those watching the game were aware that the cable landed on the roof but chose to ignore it. Perhaps not conscious of the conductive power of metal, they urged the owner of the centre to put on his generator. After the generator was put on they all went back inside to continue their match and then power was restored by the Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company (PHEDC) and fire erupted in the building.
According to a witness who was inside the centre, the building seemed to be vibrating as several of the viewers electrocuted. “As their bodies kept touching the zinc which had live electricity running through it and people’s bodies kept rubbing on each other bodies in the confusion that is how the problem escalated,” the eyewitness said.
Inconsistent Casualty Figures
Although witnesses quoted by various media gave the death toll figure as 30, the state’s police command in a statement debunked the claim, saying that only seven people died and 11 injured in the incident. In confirmation of the police figure, the medical advisory committee chairman of the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH), Dr, Ogbu Ngim, who represented the Chief Medical Director, Dr. Thomas Agan, said 18 persons with various degrees of burns were brought to the hospital with 7 dead and 11 responding to treatment. PHEDC said it was yet to ascertain the casualty figure.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of the Nyaghassang Qua Clan Council, Comrade Iso Bassey Edim said that it was unfair that the PHEDC did not bother to maintain their equipment but were only interested in collecting money or disconnecting power.
In a swift reaction however, PHEDC through its spokesperson John Onyi absolved the company of any blame in the matter, stating that the viewing centre was in PHEDC’s Right of Way.
Onyi further explained that it was the UNICAL 11KV Feeder, under which the building and others in the area were directly located, that snapped at that junction and fell on the roof of the building.
“There should be at least a 12.5 metre gap away from the high tension cable. Our investigations would include who gave approvals for buildings to be constructed under high tension cables. But like I said, we are not here for blame. Our condolences go to families that have been affected,” The Nation quoted Onyi as saying.
Buhari, Ben Ayade, Man United Commiserate With Families
The Governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade, expressed sadness over the incident and the loss of lives at the viewing centre. “The incident marks a dark chapter in the life of the state where the precious lives have been lost. At this point in time, it is sad to know that the victims lost their lives at a viewing centre where they usually converge, at their leisure time to watch their matches,” he said.
While commiserating with the families of the victims of the tragedy, the governor promised that the state government would look into the likely cause of the incident to preventing reoccurrence.
President Muhammadu Buhari also expressed shock at the event. In a statement signed by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu commiserated with the government and people of Cross River State, and football fans nationwide over the unfortunate incident.
“The President offers his deepest condolences to the family and friends of the mostly young victims, whose sudden demise is a big blow not only to their families, but also to the football-loving nation. He prays that God Almighty will grant the soul of the departed eternal rest and comfort all who mourn their irreparable loss,” the statement read in part.
In the same vein, Manchester United, which won the match that day on 3-2 aggregate, sent condolences to families of victims of the incident. In a tweet, the English club said, “Our thoughts go out to the Manchester United fans, their friends and families affected by the tragedy in Calabar, Nigeria.”
Safety Professionals’ View
Safety professionals who spoke with Safety Record Newspaper in the wake of the incident attributed it to poor law enforcement in the country and negligence of regulatory agencies.
They stated that though Nigerians were meant to keep away from power lines, regulatory agencies slacked in their duties and the government needed to improve on its enforcement.
Prominent event safety professional, Barr Oluwakemi Eboda, said that thorough investigations should be carried out to establish the exact cause of the incident to forestall a reoccurrence.
She noted that viewing centres as a business ought to be registered and licensed by the government to operate, while necessary safety requirements must be met.
Eboda, who is the Chief Responsibility Officer (CRO) of Event Basics Limited, said, “It is rather unfortunate that such a tragedy occurred at a viewing centre. I commiserate with the family of the victims.
“However, it does have to do with lack of knowledge of safety, negligence on the part of the DISCO and the government as well as the viewing centre.
“Everywhere people gather, they must prepare themselves for potential risk elements. We need to be proactive in our approach and not deliberately cause harm. Safety must be embedded into all that we do all the time.
“Whoever wants to operate such has to be licensed by the state government to operate that business and in obtaining the license, necessary safety requirements must be met because now you are having a gathering of mostly youths who will be excited because of the football match,” she said.
She noted that safety is very important and should not be compromised.
Buildings under high tension wires
Another safety professional, Mr. Segun Bakare, HSE Advisor at Petrolex Oil and Gas, condemned the construction of buildings that were close to high tension wires, stressing that the onus is on the government to demolish such buildings to prevent potential harm.
He added that ignorance was not an excuse as people needed to be aware of safety rules and regulations.
Bakare said, “Ignorance is not an excuse. People need to know and people need to be aware of some of the hazards and the risks associated with power line.”
He also said that power distribution companies should endeavor to communicate electrical hazards, the control and mitigation to people using any electrical gadget or using power connection, and warn those under power line to leave.
“The government should do well to demolish any building that is close to power line because the distance should be 9.5 metres. Any house or any structure within that power line area should be demolished – that’s the take home there,” Bakare, said.
He added, “Prevention is the best cure here so people should be coerced. If they cannot do it willing, then people should be forced to leave that area or the visibility of power line.
“Even though the government has punitive measures in place by imposing a law that anybody found under power line, we will not only demolish the structure but they will also be sanctioned.
Also, the Chairman of the Institute of Safety Professionals of Nigeria, Anambra Branch, Chief E.I. Achilike said that it was high time the law prohibiting construction of structures under high-tension cables were enforced.
“Residents should know this. It is against the law to stay under power line cables. No building or shop should be built under high tension or shop. It is the responsibility of the government to demolish such buildings.
“See what staying under high tension cables has caused for people. They have died because of this. It is unsafe to stay under high tension. It will only lead to unsafe incidents,” he stressed.
Similarly, another safety professional, Mrs. Monica Nwosu, blamed the Nigerian system for perpetuating a system of unsafe practices, calling on government to raise its game of comprehensive enforcement.
She said, “We have a bad system. The government on its own side is not doing what they are supposed to do. It is very wrong and unsafe to have such a building under Right of Way (ROW). That is number one.
“If you are trying to carry out a root-cause analysis, if that building had not been under Right of Way even if there is a snap, it will not fall on any building and in this case, the government had a role to play.
“They come up with enforcement. They have the right for demolition. All these other regulatory agencies can do their own part but they are limited except the government intervenes. There should be a strict measure. Everything under Right of Way should be removed if you are really concerned about the safety of the citizens.”
The Principal Consultant of Fresh Fountain Consulting Limited further explained that the government owed the citizens a duty of care. “It’s a failure from the government by not enforcing all these things the way they ought to. They should drive it. They should do it as duty of care they owe the citizenry. So that is just basically the key.”
“Inasmuch as I understand that we have poor (electrical) network which I will also attribute to the government because it is a carryover of bad system from PHCN to the DISCO. This thing cannot be rectified in one day.”
The Principal Consultant at DM Sheffield Ltd, Emmanuel Okudor, stated that although the distribution companies have a duty of care to their customers, Nigerians ought to adhere to safety rules and regulations for their own good.
He said, “There is need to carry out an intensive campaign in the areas of enforcement. Not just campaign; there is a need to enforce it. There are so many buildings that are very close. Some are even under high tension. Things like the incident will certainly happen.”
Okudor added that for any building under high tension cable, there was a tendency that an incident was liable to happen. “Don’t forget that this high tension wires deteriorate in terms of the strength. Over a period of time, it is not as strong as it were at first. We are lucky because I can imagine if the high tension wires constructed today are like the ones constructed before with high substandard of engineering competence and all that. Then I will want to say that the occurrence will be much,” he said.
He further said that there was no real enforcement in terms of meaningful clearance of residential buildings or activities stressing that many temporary shelters abode under high tension cables. “They are there 24 hours, some of the car parks that are used; shopping malls, among others. If that can be looked into properly with a drastic action taken in terms of the enforcement, we will reduce that,” he said.
Okudor said that ignorance is not an excuse in safety, adding that many people were aware of the repercussions of erecting buildings close to dangers but put up a carefree attitude.
“The truth is I know of a safety engineer that built his house close to a pipeline. These are the encroachments we are talking about. Some people know it. But because it has not happened for so many years and because there is no strong enforcement, people start encroaching and this is why all these things are happening.
“It was a preventable incident but it is so unfortunate and in our country everybody will start crying. There is so much noise; there is no safety regulation but the thing is: what have the people in charge done? What did they do during a previous incident?
“The right thing must be done in terms of enforcement. Nigerians need to adhere to safety regulations for their own good and for the safety of every Nigerian,” he stressed.
All Hands Must Be On Deck
A safety advocate and Executive Director of Rely Supply Ltd., Mrs. Fayo Williams, who spoke with our correspondent, harped on the need to regularly maintain infrastructure, calling on the government, communities and individuals to synergise to maintain a safe environment.
She said, “Stakeholders should join hands to put pressure on the regulatory authorities to maintain infrastructure. The community should be more observant. It was alleged that a similar incident occurred last year.
“So this was really a recurrence. If it was really true that a cable snapped, we expected the DISCO in the area to step in and do good maintenance and also create public awareness and on the part of the government, the issue of building under high tension cables should be stopped.
“It should be taken more seriously by the government. While those under such cables should be willing to relocate for the safety of everybody,” Williams said.