Sierra Leone declares three days of mourning after 100 dead in a fuel tanker disaster

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 08 November 2021:

President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone yesterday declared three days of national mourning, following the death of over one hundred people in Wellington – Freetown, when a lorry carrying granite rammed into a fuel tanker. Over one hundred people more are believed to be seriously ill in hospital with burns.

The president promised to set up a Presidential Task Force that will investigate the causes of the disaster and make recommendations for change.

Speaking in a national radio and tv broadcast yesterday, President Bio: “Fellow citizens, last night, I returned to a nation in mourning. I went directly to visit the injured and the badly burnt at Connaught and 34 Military hospitals. This morning, I also visited other victims at the Emergency and Choithram hospitals and the site of the accident.

“I saw our brothers and sisters who are in extreme pain. They shared with me their anguish and I reassured them of my government’s commitment to continue supporting them during these difficult times. This national tragedy is heart-rending.

“Let us reserve a moment of reflection for the 99 brothers and sisters we have lost so far. May God/ Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala shower them with His divine mercies. May He comfort grieving families and loved ones and heal the injured. May God Almighty/ Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala strengthen us to endure the pain of this catastrophe. We are all, indeed, deeply saddened as a nation.

“On behalf of all citizens of our beloved nation, I thank our healthcare workers who have worked tirelessly around the clock to care for the injured. We thank you for your selfless service to our fellow citizens of this great nation. Let me also thank the Honourable Vice President, cabinet ministers, the National Disaster Management Agency, the security forces, first responders, community leaders, and every citizen who has worked tirelessly to provide an effective and coordinated response to this tragedy.

“I thank Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad for your comforting messages and solidarity during these challenging times. This catastrophe has touched everyone. Your prayers and words of consolation are truly invaluable. I also thank foreign leaders and well-wishers who have condoled with us. Especially, I thank the World Health Organisation that is airlifting 6.6 tonnes of emergency medical supplies as their initial response to the severe burn cases. Moments like these bring us closer as a nation just as they have in the past. We will endure, pull through and persist as a nation.

“In solemn tribute to the faithful departed, I now declare three days of national mourning commencing Monday 8th to Wednesday 10th November 2021 throughout the Republic of Sierra Leone. Flags shall be flown at half-mast. Prayers shall be said for the deceased and the injured throughout Sierra Leone on Friday 12th November and Sunday 14th November respectively.

“The Ministry of Health and Sanitation will scale up responses and provide the best medical and psycho-social care for victims and their families. A group of foreign medical specialists will soon join our hardworking medical staff to intensify treatment for the injured.

“The incident coordinating centre will continue its verification and identification exercises, at the same time effectively coordinate all responses to this disaster. Following the identification and verification exercises, we will engage family members to plan and ensure a dignified burial for the deceased.

“In the coming days, I will set up a Presidential Task Force that will comprehensively look into the incident and present its findings and recommendations to inform future actions. The demonstration of solidarity and selflessness by medical personnel and other first responders to this disaster shows our resolve to work together as a nation. Wherever you are today, say a quiet prayer for our brothers and sisters. We will weep; we will work hard to heal the injured; and we shall overcome. I thank you and God bless The Republic of Sierra Leone.”

Since the tragic accident, there have been several outpourings of anger, despair and blame. Many have also expressed their views about the root causes of the disaster and what could have driven many of the victims to sheer desperation at the risk of losing their lives scooping fuel from the tanker.

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie said: “Another day, another tragedy in Sierra Leone. Nearly 100 people dead. Many more injured. Property lost. It’s tempting to let despair sink in. Why us? I hear people asking. But we have no hope of changing our fortune until we understand the systemic nature of our problems and apply systems leadership to solve them. Take the tanker tragedy, for instance. According to one eyewitness account (a WhatsApp audio by a bike rider who identified himself as “Omo T”) I heard on social media, the lorry that crashed into the tanker had experienced brake failure, had already hit a pedestrian, and the driver was struggling to control the vehicle when he hit the tanker. If this version of events is true, we have questions of the roadworthiness of heavy goods vehicles (HGV) on our roads to contend with. We have the skills of HGV drivers to address. We have to inquire into the incentives that would induce a driver to continue struggling on to his destination with no brakes despite the obvious difficult and risks.

“What about the road design itself and traffic flow? Given how busy this part of Freetown is and the hazardous nature of goods carried, were the risks taken into account? Did the tanker have the right anti-collision protections to minimize risks of fuel spills in the event of an accident? If such measures were introduced, would they be _enforced_? What incentives might there be in our system to create perverse incentives? How quickly after the accident was the area cordoned off? A senior citizen living in the Wellington area where the incident occurred warned the Sierra Leone Police Local Unit Commander (LUC) four months ago of the need for vigilance in the area. Did the police have the resources, the training, the data to guide deployment and response?

“Despite the pleas of the tanker driver who recognized the grave risks and warned people to vacate the area, people rushed toward the tanker to collect fuel. Many of us will have seen the video of the young girl who even does a little dance as she approached the stricken tanker. One can’t help wonder, knowing what happened soon after, whether she survived the ensuing carnage. Some did. Indeed our WhatsApp commentator “Omo T” tells us he filled up his bike’s tank and went on his merry way. He was in Brookfields, several kilometers to the west of the incident when he heard what had subsequently happened.

“How well did those who approached the tanker appreciate the risks of remaining anywhere near such an inferno in the making? Yes, people are poor and opportunistically scooped up fuel to fill tanks or keep for later use (the latter itself another fire hazard). But even onlookers didn’t appreciate the risks. One local CNN-style citizen journalist shared a video commentary from a distance in which the fire is traveling inexorably toward him as the vapor ignites but he’s quite unperturbed and carried on reporting.

“Once the inevitable happens and the fire starts, how quickly are the first responders able to mobilize? Do they have the vehicles, the communications equipment, the access through congested streets, the training? How well-equipped and resourced are our hospitals? Do we have the essential drugs, bandages, burns units? How well-resourced is our National Disaster Management Agency? Do we have a disaster management plan? Have we had drills? Do all the relevant players know what to do? How well coordinated are they? Do they have the training, resources, personnel?

“In other words, there are numerous moving parts that we need to align to prevent such disasters from happening in the first place and to ensure that the response when things do go wrong protects lives and property as best as possible.

“We tend to default to pointing fingers of blame at individuals (whether victims or officials or leaders) for their behavior at times like this. Indeed, maybe some people may be found wanting. But the bigger and deeper problems we must first recognize and then tackle are systemic. Of course government agencies have key roles to play here. In particular, they need to be joined up and work in unison for a common cause.

“But we as citizens and budding systems leaders need to recognize our individual and collective responsibilities in all of this. If we don’t, we condemn ourselves to superficial gestures of limited value, handing out blame, food packages, and bandages while we wait for the next tragedy, lament once again, ask our gods why they cursed us with such bad luck, and start the whole process over and over and over again. This cycle itself is disempowering and demoralizing. No wonder we see ourselves as helpless victims of fate.

“We can do better. We must do better. We have it within our power to shape our destiny and change our fortune. We owe it to ourselves to transform our systems and thus our lives.”

Visiting the Wellington community yesterday, president Bio said: “The National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) has coordinated the removal of 100 fatalities from the scene. Data collected from three main hospitals – Connaught with 148 casualties, among them 93 dead; 34 Military Hospital with 21 casualties and 6 dead and at the Emergency we have 18 casualties with no death reported so far”.

He added that preliminary report from damage and loss assessment showed that 2 dwelling houses with 5 households, 5 shops, 2 vehicles were involved in the accident, 20 vehicles were caught in the blaze and 42 motorbikes, mostly from riders who were involved in the fuel scooping.

“We are also engaging WHO locally. We are using a phased-out approach, starting with plans for the next 48 hours, strategising for the next 7 days for actual stabilisation and eventually embarking on sustained maintenance for the next 30 days and beyond,” he said.

“Let us be law-abiding. We have lost over 100 of our compatriots in a single instance and now we are struggling with about 100 survivors in the hospitals. This is a moment to come together and avoid the blame game. We must come together as a community and deal with this disaster. We must say never again will we make such a mistake,” President Bio told the people of Wellington.

Video: President Bio Declares 3 Days Of National Mourning In Sierra Leone – 7TH NOV  2021*


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