It was a double tragedy. Earlier on the night of 17th September, at the El-Messah Stadium in Tunisia, the Iwuanyanwu Nationale (now Heartland) had lost 0-3 to Esperance of Tunisia in the first leg quarter finals match. To keep Nigeria’s semi-finals, hope alive, it meant that Nationale would have to score four unreplied goals in the second leg scheduled to hold in Owerri, in Nigeria.
With these dejected hearts, the Nationale chartered an aircraft that was to bring them back to Nigeria early in the morning of 18th September. It was Oriental Airlines BAC-1-11 that was bringing them back to Lagos. Alas, it turned out to be another disaster as the plane crash landed on the run-way of Aguennar Airport of Tamanrasset in Algeria.
The atmosphere inside the Oriental Aircraft 5N-IMO, conveying officials and players of the team from Tunisia to Nigeria on Sunday, 18th September was not particularly a happy one, as they were ruminating over the 3-0 loss which Nationale had suffered in the hands of Esperance of Tunisia, in the first leg quarter-finals of the African Champions Cup, played a day earlier. However, in spite of the prevailing gloom, nobody had the premonition of an impending disaster.
The weather which was bad had reduced visibility to zero and was preventing the aircraft from landing at the Tamanrasset Airport in Southern Algeria to refuel for the flight to Lagos. After the aircraft had been hovering over the Algerian airspace for about three hours, the captain of the jet, Chukwu Amaechi, knew that time was running out for his crew of six and 33 passengers. He also knew that in spite of the thick fog, the aircraft had to land. So, to prevent any fire outbreak, some fuel was discharged while the captain and his crew prepared themselves for the worst. Three earlier attempts to land were aborted.
When it was obvious that the only way out was to crash land, Amaechi announced to his passengers that due to bad weather the plane would be making a forced landing. It was like an apocalyptic declaration.
Gloom immediately gave way to despair and despondency inside the plane.
Tanko Saleh, one of the survivors recounted in a newspaper that having hovered for a long time, “One of the crew members was telling us we should fasten our seat belts for rough landing. But we didn’t know we would land on the wrong lane. The plane hit a big pole near the control tower. When giving the account to British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), he said: “The aircraft shook badly, it became really turbulent, then the aircraft landed badly, it went off the runway and hit a pole.” I didn’t know how it happened but I just found myself outside.
A journalist who was on board the plane but was among the survivors, Banji Ola, Daily Champion’s Sports Editor, also explained: “Everybody became worried. We thought the end had finally come, we started to pray.” Before the passengers could gather their thoughts together, the aircraft was in a free fall.
When the aircraft hit the runway, at about 8.20 a.m, local time, it broke into two, its undercarriage was also overturned. The 39 people on board were trapped. Ola said they were all looking for an exit. They finally found one after about five minutes and those who could still move scrambled out. Ironically, the exit was where the plane broke into two.
By the time help came, it was too late for them as the Captain, two of his crew members, Chinedu Ogbonna and Obieze Eze and Omale Aimuanwosa, a player, had died by the impact of the crash. The injured were taken to the hospital. Out of the 20 people taken to the hospital, four were in critical conditions while Uche Ikeogu, the goalkeeper was unconscious. Two days later, Ikeogu who had blood clot in his chest cavity and did not regain consciousness was reported dead. His problem was compounded by spinal cord injury.
The Algerian aviation minister was quoted to have said that the crash was due to poor visibility. The Federal Aviation Authority of Nigeria confirmed this after the examination of the black box. The crash shook the nation terribly. It threw the sporting circle into deep mourning. The Federal Civil Aviation Authority (FCAA), in a statement signed by its manager, Mr. Agbabiaka, expressed their sympathy on the incident and said that the Minister of Aviation, in conjunction with FCAA officials were working to get more details about the crash.
The crash and death of the players was indeed a very sad one. Sports lovers especially, Iwuanyanwu Nationale fans were trooping in with condolences. Mr. Fan Ndubuoke, Chairman of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, and some other sports writers were among those who expressed their condolences
The nation was united in grief. The NFA headquarters at Ogunlana Drive, Surulere, Lagos, wore a mournful look throughout as people huddled together in groups discussing the incident, particularly the fate of Alhaji Bature, a member of NFA and Steve Olarinoye, the pro-league secretary both of whom were at the head of the Nigerian contingent. Some relations of those on board were also seen asking questions about the fate of their kins. At the General Aviation Terminal, GAT, Ikeja, Lagos office of Oriental Airlines, the feeling of sadness was palpable. The workers were crying openly while a depressing lull replaced the bustle that was hitherto, the hallmark of the place.
In a swift reaction, the board of Oriental Airlines made a public announcement that the death toll of the crash was five. According to the management, they have contacted and briefed the families of those who died. In their public announcement, they said that, “Five persons, three crew and two players died in the crash. The board and management of Oriental Airlines Limited are already in touch with the families of the victims of the crash.”
Owerri, the base of Nationale was grief-stricken too, as the news of the crash made the rounds, shops were closed while people stood in groups discussing the unfortunate incident. Families who had relations on board waited with bated breath for their return.
The soccer tragedy also drew immediate reactions from the government. The Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, expressed deep shock at the incident. Issa Hayatou, the boss of the African Football Confederation, CAF, identified with Nigeria in its moment of grief and said: “In the name of the African football family and in my personal name, I address my profound regret and condolence to the families of the deceased and pray for the prompt recovery of the injured.” Gen. Abacha said that those who died were national heroes who died on national duties. He lamented the tragedy saying that it was more painful, especially coming at a time the nation was about to host its victorious ambassadors to another international engagement. He prayed that God would grant the chairman of the club, the Imo state citizens and the entire nation the fortitude to bear the loss.
Emmanuel lwuanyanwu, owner of the aircraft and club, has since Sunday evening been receiving condolence messages from various quarters.
Apart from God’s providence, it was gathered that the pilot’s dexterity also kept the casualty figure mercifully low. According to some sources, the aircraft had climbed down to such a low level that it would be impossible for the pilot to head to an alternative airport. A crew member said the plane would have burst into flames if there had been an attempt to gain height and fly to another destination. Continued the crew member: “It was better for him to have landed when he did because the fuel on board had been jettisoned when the aircraft was hovering.” Omeruah, himself a trained air force officer, said the pilot “must have manoeuvred the aircraft in such a manner that he managed to save the lives of others.”
There were, however, some uncomfortable twists in the account of the crash. Reports said that the Tunisian authorities delayed the flight unnecessarily for about three hours over handling charges. It was said that if the plane had left on schedule, it would not have gone into the foggy weather that eventually resulted in the crash.
By Wednesday, 21st September, a chartered Kabo airline Boeing 727 departed Nigeria in a five hour air-borne to Algeria to evacuate victims of the crash. The presidential wing of the airport symbolized gloom and mourning. As early as 7 p.m, hundreds of friends, relations, parents and sympathizers had thronged the lounge in silent expectation of the arrival of the survivors. The evening was quiet in an eerie way. There was neither drumming nor dancers swaying their hips to the pulsating rhythm being thumped out. It was clear from the generally black apparel and mournful faces that the small crowd which gathered at the presidential wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, Lagos, was not waiting to welcome another batch of sporting heroes fresh from another heroic exploit. Nobody attempted to throw any light-hearted banter. The reason for the gathering was grave enough; players and officials of Iwuanyanwu Nationale who were involved in a fatal air crash in Southern Algeria, Sunday, September 18, were being awaited.
The welcome party, led by chairman of the Nigerian Football Association, Air Commodore Emeka Omeruah (rtd), waited patiently into the early hours. At about 1.30 a.m, the dreaded moment finally came. The Kabo Air Boeing 237 taxied to a stop. Emeka Omeruah, Chairman of the Nigerian Football Association, Patrick Ekeji, ex-Eagles International and now Imo State Director of Sports, Rafiu Ladipo, chairman of the Nigerian Football Supporters Club and some staff of the National Sports Commission, who were in the welcome party moved towards the plane. It was then that lamentation started. The men dabbed their faces but the women simply broke down and wept uncontrollably.
Those whose relatives and friends died in the crash wailed uncontrollably as the surviving players emerged from the belly of the aircraft into the warm embrace of their loved ones.
First to alight from the aircraft was dread-locked James Enuagwuna, a Nationale player clutching a football and a pair of jersies.
He stated that the team was scheduled to leave Tunis immediately after the match, “We had intended to take off around 11 a.m. but the Tunisian officials did not allow us to go until much later. At that time, we were already tired and when the aircraft eventually took off, majority of us were already exhausted and were fast asleep”, he explained.
However, he could recall that there was pandemonium when it became obvious that the plane was going to crash land. He said, “The pilot told us that the weather in Algeria was bad that he could not even see the runway. We circled in the air for more than two hours. Although James had stitches on his head and chin he expressed regret over the death of his two team mates – Uche and Omale – which he described as ‘painful’ but was full of praises for the fallen pilots who, he said, “saved our lives because if these men had not burnt the fuel before descending, perhaps all of us might have ‘been dead.”
Mr. Mike Obi, apparently weighed down by his injury and weariness occasioned by the long distance flight held the Algerian weather responsible for the fate that befell the team. He contended that anyone who saw the wreckage of the plane would not believe that there were survivors adding that it was only a miracle of God that saved them.
For Chima Okwudiri, another Nationale player, who was one of the survivors, it was a trip to the land of the dead and back. With a POP on his left hand and a crepe bandage round his neck, he lamented the degree of pains he had to undergo since the Sunday incident. He has a very deep cut across his forehead and described the bleeding there thus: “Blood was gushing out from my head like tap water that fateful day. I never thought I would survive. I thank God for saving me.”
Udeagba Agbarakwe, was another Nationale player whose close shave with death had drawn him nearer to God.
Apart from the pilot and the co-pilot, the other crew member who lost her life was identified as Obiageli Eze. As the five caskets were lowered from the cargo hole of the air-craft, relations of ‘Oby’ as she was fondly called, cried uncontrollably. A man identified as her fiance wept profusely for his lost dear one who was on her first international trip.
Her air hostess colleagues echoed her name and recounted how she had bid them goodbye while leaving for Tunisia on Thursday and at the same time asked them to expect her the following Sunday. But it was final bye-bye as she never made the journey in body and soul.
About 5 pm, the chartered aircraft which took off again from The Murtala Muhammed International Airport, arrived Anyiam Akanu’s Airport Owerri where thousands who defiled the heavy down pour had been waiting to welcome the survivors of the crash. On arrival, each of the injured players was driven into town in an ambulance. As a mark of honour and in mourning the dead, offices were closed at 12 noon while the national flag was flown at half mast.
A funeral oration was held for the dead at the airport with the Imo State Administrator charging the survivors and families of the deceased not to be discouraged. He also advised the management of Nationale not to be dampened by what happened. He urged them to see the incident as an act of God and take solace in Him.
On hand to sympathise with the victims and management of Nationale was a team of National Sports Commission headed by Alhaji Babayo Shehu. Also, present was a delegation of Nigerian Football Association led by Malam Abubakar Salisu.
For the Nationale players and officials, their main worry now is how to pick up the pieces from the rubble of the crash. Some 48 hours after the crash, Uche Ejimofor, team manager of Nationale who was also on board sent signals to the FA that his team was only down and not yet out. He said that the club needed some weeks to put its act together and continue its search for the elusive Sekou Toure Cup in spite of the crash and the 3-0 deficit. Austin Mgbolu, spokesman of the Football Association (FA), confirmed Iwuanyanwu’s intention and said the FA had already made representation to CAF to give Nigeria some weeks off from all continental competitions. It was later revealed that CAF was favourably disposed to Nigeria’s request. And the grand scheme to ensure Nationale’s continued participation in the Sekou Toure Cup began in earnest.
The players did their best to bring honour to their lost ones but they could not win the African Champions Cup. They lost at the second leg of the match.