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Hundreds Drown in Nigeria

Africa: Bodies pulled from canals belong to people who fled blasts at army weapons depot.

January 29, 2002|From Times Wire Services

LAGOS, Nigeria — As onlookers wept and wailed, hundreds of corpses were pulled out of canals here in Nigeria's largest city Monday. The victims drowned while trying to flee explosions at an army weapons depot.

Many victims apparently did not realize how deep the water was and drowned after they ran or drove vehicles into the Oke Afa drainage canal, witnesses said. They were fleeing explosions at the city's Ikeja military base that propelled shrapnel and shock waves for miles Sunday night.

Rescue volunteer Ben Nwachukwu said more than 200 bodies had been pulled from just one section of the canal.

"The people who fell in here are strangers to the area," Nwachukwu said. "They didn't know there was water until they were drowning."

Soldiers and other rescue workers brought out between 200 and 300 bodies from the adjoining Pako canal, said local residents who helped in the operation.

Obtaining an accurate death toll was difficult in part because the current in the Oke Afa canal was carrying bodies downstream. Authorities issued no official count.

More than 700 children in one district alone were reported separated from their parents after the worst disaster in the city of more than 13 million since deadly political riots in 1993.

Army spokesman Col. Felix Chukwumah said the explosions began when a fire spread to the depot, which is surrounded by crowded slums and working-class neighborhoods. He did not know how the fire started, but a police officer said Sunday that it began at a gas station.

Dozens of blasts sent fireballs towering over the city and shattered windows six miles away at the international airport. The explosions continued into the early morning Monday.

Workers and volunteers in canoes used long poles to search for corpses in the canals in the northern neighborhood of Isolo, five miles from the weapons depot.

Some residents said the tragedy could have been much worse.

If the explosions had occurred on a weekday, about 3,000 children would have been attending three schools that were destroyed.

"I think those who say God is a Nigerian are correct," said a soldier at the Ikeja barracks.

"We are fortunate that most of the weapons were stored underground," he said. "Otherwise, the whole of Lagos could have been on fire."

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