It is Saturday evening and there is heavy activity in and around the Atomic Roundabout located on the Legon-Madina-Adenta stretch in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
A bang occurs. It is potently brash and decisively destructive. At once. An explosion had occurred. The Mansco Gas Filling Station, located some few metres away from the Roundabout, had caught fire.
Soon, the explosion would schlep its way through – rather angrily; devastating anything in sight – a nearby TOTAL Filling Station, another Filling Station Benab, eggs, oranges, jewelry, furniture, cars, billboards, biscuits, fizzy drinks, humans.
It is not a pretty sight. In minutes, the huge eruption that had occurred was as dramatic as the scenes that followed: a residential property’s wall collapses in whole while a man’s entire living room is razed down completely. Everything was gone.
An impact was felt. Ten kilometres south of the scene, a radio station’s Manager is awoken in his sleep by what he says sounded like a bomb. Five miles away from the epicenter, in another direction, a young banker, who sees the skies turn a combination of colours, hurriedly shepherds his family of four out of their residence, heading out to nowhere – for as long as they were safe.
Social media and peer-to-peer platforms came through with enough detail to get a nation’s attention. Local news outlets characteristically switched to operations mode, dispatching teams. The worse had happened. A city’s life had been jolted, a township had been brought to its knees by an explosion which had no mercy, not even for non-living things not interfering with its brutish self.
The explosion announced its intimidating evolution in not so pleasant ways.
“I have just heard a loud bang; I don’t know where it is coming from,” said a Facebook post by a woman who gave her location as Tema Motorway, an appreciable detachment from the precincts of the blast.
Messages of distress poured in. They were ample to paint a perfect picture of pandemonium.
Around the facility, sprints for life were made; humans run over each other, cars and motorcycles (in attempts to escape) hit pedestrians. A different kind of apocalypse was taking place before the very eyes of a city having its standard evening quiet time and preparing to call it a day.
The fire raged on, causing considerable fear and panic. In major schools nearby – the University of Ghana and the University of Professional Studies, as well as the Presbyterian Boys Senior High School – students ran for their lives, clutching on to anything, anywhere, to stay safe. Some were evacuated to nearby facilities. Around the scene of the blast, a lot had been lost in seconds, and wares were deserted in minutes thanks to the ferocious inciter of terrible scale.
New and traditional media went into an overspill. All night. There was enough to feast on – tremble, varied eyewitness’ accounts, tales of misses by a whisker, what is, what should have been, and angst.
Firemen, drawn from within the capital and close to the scene, would later show up to be counted as men of valor and dedication willing to douse a wreck ball that stood to threaten their occupational and structural intelligence, and capacity. For hours into the night, they did what they were called to do, attempting to minimize the magnitude of the rubble.
Later, the rains would come through with adequate downpour to rip through the shackles. But it did little, too, considering the extent of the blast, and giving the firemen some more work into the next morning.
On Sunday October 8, 2017, an understandable atmosphere of grief and sorrow was the depiction at the scene. The pungent smell from the previous night’s damage was too strong.
Hundreds had come to witness the extent of devastation. For the uninitiated and uniformed, it was good time to catch up. On the edges of the overpass that sits atop the Atomic Roundabout, hundreds stood to feed on the near-apocalypse scenes beneath them. It was an assembly of media, security and political heads, with another gathering of passers-by cordoned off with police barricade tapes.
Vicentia Kporku, a.k.a. Daavi Special, a food vendor who operates some 50 metres from the scene, recounted her experience during the burst. She cuts different looks of okay and trepidation; they are quite mixed for the fairly aged Kporku, who speaks of how she escaped the blast narrowly together with her five workers at the small eatery she maintains along the shoulders of the stretch.
“It could have been worse,” she says, pointing to a tiny scratch she had on her legs, acquired in an attempt to escape the fury of the fire.
“I am yet to hear from my workers. Some went as far as Adenta and others, too, are yet to call,” she says in the local Ghanaian Twi language, spoken by a majority of the people in the national capital.
Kporku’s narration is shared in part by dozens who also fled the scene while the blast continued. Like many others, Gideon Dzreke, a pump attendant at the Benab Filling Station, said all he saw was a bang, followed by shouts of misery and a call to action for survival.
“It is by divine grace that I am alive,” continued Kporku, adding to a number of testimonies around divinity on and off site, one being that a larger number of casualties would have been recorded had it happened the night before when some old students of the Presbyterian Boys Senior High School grouped for their annual Bonfire event.
An officer from the Criminal Investigations Department of the Ghana Police Service on duty. PHOTO/OBED BOAFO
At the scene on Sunday morning, protocol officers cued in an important running order. There is an expected visitor – the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana, Mahamudu Bawumia, who had to cut short a tour of the Northern Region, to ascertain the extent of damage. A deputy Minister of Information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah announces to a group of media people that Bawumia should be there in minutes.
Bawumia zoomed in. A convoy of saloon cars slided past a make-shift police entry point. He dismounted and headed straight to the scene, where he was briefed by the Deputy Director General of the National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO), Abu Ramadan, whose men had been at the scene all night, all morning.
The Vice President was joined by other Politicians including Attorney-General Gloria Akufo, who later spoke of her experience with the blast.
Clad in a traditional all-black Ghanaian cloth of sorrow, she placed her two hands on her head while Bawumia addressed the media. She was in the quintessential traditional posture of deep mourning and grief.
“I traveled for a funeral and came late only to meet the explosion. I thank God for my life and for that of my old lady who was around at that time in my house. The colour of my house has changed to black; some of my sliding doors and ceiling have also broken,” Akuffo later told journalists.
As the Vice President prepared to leave, a man behind the Police Barricade tape screamed “let’s do the right thing.” He would later explain.
“We have always been experiencing these kinds of disasters but little action has been taken to address the root causes and prevent their reoccurrence. The owner of the Gas Filling Station here has, for years, been complaining about the close proximity of some of the shops to his facility but nobody listens; they said he was full of himself. Today, here we are faced with this.”
Another man wearing a protest cum advocacy-like T-Shirt would also add his voice to the call for sanity.
“This is unacceptable. We can’t always behave like this. I am sad but this could have been avoided.”
The calls were in perfect tune to that of the Vice President who was emphatic in his address to the media while he visited.
“We are going to move to deal with it, and quickly.”
Bawumia’s boss and President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, later spoke to the issue at hand, calling for “a stop”, a plea embedded in what many say are lapses in the administration of laws that govern the operation of Filling Stations – gas, petrol et al.
“We cannot continue with them,” referring to the obvious disregard for national and community bye-laws by the operators of the stations.
“It is one too many. We cannot afford anymore. Everybody involved in the industry to recognize that we all have to make adjustments to be able to guarantee the safety and security of our people, so these things do not happen again. I need your support, and the co-operation of the people of Ghana to make sure that the policies that we will be bringing out succeed, so that such incidents become a thing of the past and not of our future.”
A repetitive call some have punched holes into, Conversations about getting things right are visited every now and then when a major blast occurs such as the worst in Ghana’s history – the June 3, 2015 Nkrumah Circle Goil Filling Station accident that claimed over 100 lives, and which led to the establishment of a five-member committee chaired by a retired Justice of the Court of Appeal, Isaac Justice Douse.
The call for stringent measures is high on the agenda for the Ghana Gas Manufacturing Company, whose CEO, Frances Ewurabena Essiam blames past and present regimes for neglecting her outfit. Essiam is hoping action will be expedited on the implementation of the LPG Cylinder Exchange/Recirculation programme (Gas Exchange Programme), mooted by the National Petroleum Authority.
Both organizations and other stakeholders, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ghana Standards Authority, hope the programme, which would see cylinder bottling plants making onward delivery to the stations, will curb the high incident of explosions.
Chief Executive Officer of the NPA, Hassan Tampuli, has argued that the programme is ideal if Ghana is to make any headway in limiting these explosions.
A model experimented in other countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Brazil, it places the responsibility of filling the cylinders in the hands of the bottling companies, who in turn dispatch them to the retail outlets in exchange for empty ones, meaning domestic or individual users only get to use cylinders that change hands from one person to the other, from time to time.