Face to Face with Death

My colleague and very good friend, Waziri Adio, has a sense of humour that sometimes borders on the morbid. Shortly before we departed Lagos last Sunday on the first leg of THISDAY Meets the Nation tour, he said: "If this aircraft crashes, THISDAY would be re-enacting the Zambia national soccer team tragedy scenario. " Mr. Victor Ifijeh (current Managing Director of TheNation newspaper) immediately scolded Waziri: "Why do you always think negatively?" Apparently, the editor of THISDAY, whom we all call Kabila in the newsroom, was not in a hurry to join his Congolese 'namesake' in the great beyond. He almost did.

Waziri, however, had a point which we did not want to discuss because nobody likes to talk about death yet the danger was very clear. On the chartered aircraft Sunday morning were all THISDAY title Editors, the Divisional Directors, the General Managers and the operational Managers.

From Kaduna to Kano to Jos, the interactive sessions were not only interesting but most revealing. At every city, we were well received even as the people expressed their fears about what they consider to be the adversarial posture of the ‘June 12 media’ as they call us. The interactions were candid and we learnt a lot about what Sharia means to the North, the issues that concern them and how we can help bring some of these issues to the fore. Former Solid Minerals Minister, Alhaji Kaloma Ali (now of blessed memory), for instance, would want the media to focus on the challenge of desertification as a result of drought because this affects "the goats and cattle which sometimes vote for us".

That message was not lost on us but the exchanges that followed were convivial. After the session in Jos, however, we had to leave for Maiduguri but the aircraft needed to refuel aside the fact that it could not take all of us. So, it was decided that the aircraft would go to Abuja where it would refuel and then come back for us. The Chairman, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena decided he would spend the night in Abuja. Waziri, Eni-B, Tunji Bello, Funke Aboyade decided to go with him to Abuja and then come back with the flight. I elected to stay behind in Jos to write and send my column which I had already titled ‘Memo from the North.’

After the first batch left, our Regional Editor, Mr. Peter Umar Omale (now of blessed memory), took us to a place where we could eat pounded yam before going to his office. It was there that I spoke with my wife for a telephone conversation that could have been the last, something she probably would have recounted for some reporters in the many ‘untold stories’ that would have been published had we not survived the crash that was to happen that night.

The aircraft arrived back in Jos at about the same time we arrived the airport sometimes around 8 PM. Inside were all the people that left earlier except Eni-B, Aboyade and Waziri. They had opted to spend the night in Abuja along with our Chairman so that they could come to Maiduguri the next morning. Tunji Bello and others who came back from Abuja elected to go to Maiduguri to rest for the night. Eni-B, I gathered, also elected to go to Maiduguri but he was persuaded to stay in Abuja. He was lucky.

Shortly before we finally took off from Jos, Ifijeh called Captain Akinsete aside and asked whether the pilot had got in touch with Maiduguri and had confirmed that the weather was good. Ifijeh had his fears. In 1993, the Nigeria Airways plane he boarded nearly crashed at the same Maiduguri airport as a result of bad weather. Since then, he has been afraid of flying through the airport.

The Captain assured Ifijeh that there was no cause for alarm and we had no reason to doubt a man of Captain Shina's professional experience and reputation. We felt we were in safe hands. In his early 40s but with almost 20 years’ experience in the industry, Captain Shina was for 15 years the best Pilot in Concord Airlines which he, and a few other professionals, helped the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola to establish. And Abiola was not a man who would go for a mediocre. Besides, we also found out (since we are reporters) that he acquired the aircraft just two months ago and he had invested all his life savings on it so there was no way he would take unnecessary risk. It was more or less his life.

Incidentally, or perhaps providentially, before the aircraft took off from Jos airport, we heard the communication between the co-pilot and the Control Towers and that helped to reassure us. We heard clearly ‘8000 metres’ and ‘broken cloud’. Many of us, including illiterates like me in such matters, said that the weather was good because of the phrase ‘broken cloud’ which Dr. Amanze Obi said ‘as in Broken Tongues’, the title of his weekly Tuesday column on the back page. We all laughed, especially when Wale Oladepo (now of blessed memory) also began to convert the 8000 metres to feet. It was in such expansive mood that we left Jos not knowing what was ahead of us.

The flight was smooth until about 80 minutes into the journey when we noticed there was a problem with the way the engineer and the hostess were going back and forth to the Cockpit to converse with the pilot. By this time, however, only Obi, Bello and myself could sense what was going on because our seats were close to the cockpit and we were not asleep.

At a point, we could hear the Captain telling some people on the radio, "Why are you people doing this to me?" He sounded desperate and he also shouted on the hostess to go and sit down. The young lady at this time came to advise that we should fasten our seat belts though she betrayed no emotions until she got to her seat and began to pray. That was when we knew we were in trouble. All of a sudden, the aircraft began a sharp ascent. Then we began to descend again. Not long after, the pilot lost control of the aircraft lost control in a turbulence of wind and at that point, all one could hear were ‘Jesus’, ‘Jehovah’ as everyone began to call upon the name of their God.

The Captain was later to explain that he was not given the correct weather report and at the point he suspected, he had to question them again and that was when they gave a different report. By then it was too late to maneuver especially with a gushing wind that more or less took the aircraft from him. As he was struggling, we all witnessed the tragic drama with the aircraft being tossed left and right in the air. It was like a movie as we all watched our lives ebbing away without having the power to do anything about it. Then we had a big bang as the aircraft crashed on the side I was sitting which was ripped apart, submerging all of us in what turned out to be sand dunes. The Captain himself had been thrown from the Cockpit and he landed on Bello who was sitting directly behind him.

By the time we regained our composure after we came out I remember telling Ifijeh that he looked like the man who was soaked in cement in one of the Bagco Super Sack advertisement slots on television. How did we manage to survive? I do not know but all the people who have seen the aircraft wondered how anybody did. It was just God.

Since the aircraft crashed in the forest the immediate problem was how to get out. How would we be rescued? To worsen the situation, most of us could not find our shoes and the place was full of thorns. We later learnt it had a lot of dangerous animals too. It was also very cold. By now it was after 11 PM.

Even as many shouted because of the thorns for which Sunny Hughes, our Systems Manager, tore his undervest to tie his legs, we still could appreciate the fact that the aircraft eventually stopped near an electric pole. What if we had hit it? But the co-pilot was very alert by removing the battery as we crashed. That was what averted an explosion.

Since we were marooned far away in the bush the question remained how we would be rescued. What followed more than convinced me all hope is not lost in this country. At a point most of us were freezing as a result of cold we had to remind ourselves that if we could survive a plane crash no cold would kill us. Then we began to hear the siren of Fire Service vehicle before we saw the light. By now the Captain had trekked into the bush with the camera flash light of Photo Editor, Mr. Innocent Okafor (also now of blessed memory), which he was flashing into the air. They discovered him first before they got us.

I cannot but commend the Borno State Fire Service, the State Police Command and the Airforce for the quick response. And this had nothing to do with our being journalists because they did not know until they found us. At the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, we were treated very well. That night, I felt very proud being a Nigerian. And the people of Maiduguri were something else. By the next morning after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Hausa Service had reported the crash and we had been identified, they all began to call on us at the Maiduguri International Airport where we lodged. From the Shehu of Borno who came personally to see us to the Speaker of the State House of Assembly, the hotel was besieged. The Secretary to the State Government, almost all the Commissioners, the State N.Y.S.C. Director, the Commissioner of Police, the Road Safety Director, the Airforce Commandant, Hon. Daggash of the House of Representatives, the younger brother of Alhaji Kashim Imam, they all came. And several others were still coming in by the time we left for the airport at about 11 am yesterday.

President Olusegun Obasanjo who we learnt was informed shortly after the crash occurred, directed the relevant authorities to render to us all necessary assistance. And yesterday morning, he sent a Presidential Jet to take us back to Lagos. We cannot thank him enough for the gesture. That is the way it should be. Citizens in distress should have the pride and confidence that the President of their country cares for them in their hour of need.

On the way back from Maiduguri inside the Presidential Jet, there was a mild drama when there was a slight turbulence. Amanze Obi and Mrs. Chinwe Izegbu wondered why they did not come back by road. I also did not know when I shouted ‘not again’ notwithstanding that before we left Maiduguri we thought we had regained our composure. We even cracked jokes of the way some publications would have reported our death with stories of ‘last moments’. Yet nobody would have been able to capture our struggle for survival in the crashing aircraft, the things we all remember and perhaps even regrets.

Looking back to Tuesday night, after we had been treated at the hospital and were going to the hotel, I sat very close to Captain Shina who had actually done everything to save our lives. He also ensured we were evacuated out of the crash site by carrying someone on his back when he started shouting about the thorns. Yet he himself was wearing no shoe. As we sat in the bus on the way to the hotel, he muttered to himself: "I am finished". I replied that he is not and that he will yet bounce back. He smiled at me and replied: "Yes, in another lifetime".

What actually happened? Was it human error? Were we taking a risk to fly in the night? I have spoken to the Captain and he said what happened could have happened in the afternoon and I want to believe him. As reporters we asked him several questions. We also spoke to one of the men at the Control Towers. We asked the Airforce Commandant a few questions too. But we do not in any way want to prejudice the investigation going on. Something must however be done to our Airport management though it is sufficient for now that we should thank God we are alive.

To the good people of Maiduguri, however, we send our love. They are a loving people and as we promise before leaving on Wednesday, THISDAY will come back to the city. And God's willing, I will be there!

• First published in THISDAY in 2001

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