By Adejumo Oludare
An Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP), Mr Alaba Yahaya Haruna, yesterday told a Lagos High Court in Igbosere that one of his patrol teams observed an aircraft flying low over a Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) building at Ikotun Egbe, just before it collapsed on September 12, 2014, killing 116 people.
Haruna testified before Justice Lateef Lawal-Akapo as a defence witness in the trial of the Registered Trustees of SCOAN and four others.
The church – with Haruna’s testimony – opened its defence to a one-count charge of building without approval brought against it by the Lagos State Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP), following the dismissal of its no-case submission on March 8, 2016.
The other defendants are the two engineers who built the building: Messrs Oladele Ogundeji and Akinbela Fatiregun, and their companies, Hardrock Construction and Engineering Company and Jandy Trust Limited.
Aside SCOAN’s one-count charge, the other defendants are facing 110 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Haruna, Area Commander of the Eastern Ports Command, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, was Divisional Police Officer (DPO) of the Ikotun Egbe Police Station, Lagos, at the time the building collapsed.
Led in examination-in-chief by SCOAN Trustees counsel, Mr Oluseye Diyan, the witness relived the incident.
Haruna said: “On that fateful day on September 12, 2014 at about 12:30 hours, there was a radio communication from the police control room at Ikeja that they were receiving calls from the public of an aircraft flying at low altitude over the church. I was directed by the Area Command to confirm the incident and monitor the aircraft’s activities.
“I wanted to go out and direct my men to watch out for the aircraft when I received another report of an airplane flying at a very low altitude. I went outside but I couldn’t see it, by that time it had gone. I received a call later from Inspector Lucky Ugbaja, stationed at the church, that one of the church’s buildings had collapsed.”
According to him, the radio room had earlier radioed the Police Airport Command to confirm whether it was carrying out any activity in the SCOAN vicinity.
Haruna said when he arrived at the church’s premises there was a large crowd and the few policemen there were trying to manage the situation. More onlookers kept trooping in and the crowd spilled to the roads outside the church, causing serious traffick gridlock.
“We were overwhelmed,” Haruna told the judge, adding that he called for more policemen, which was provided.
He said his men cordoned off the scene in an attempt to restrict entrance to only those who could assist the church members and other worshippers in the rescue operation.
According to him, the floors of the collapsed building were lying one on the other “and the church members and others at the scene were engaged in rescue operations.
“Those I met there were SCOAN worshippers, they were bringing out so many people from under the rubble. Most of the victims were alive. Some were injured, some were not.
“…Later the Red Cross, Life Savers, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) arrived and joined us in the rescue.”
The witness stated that the LASEMA General Manager complained of difficulty in gaining access to the scene of the collapse because of the crowd and that the journalists in his entourage were denied access, following which he apologised and ordered his men to let the journalists in.
He said the rescue mission lasted about seven days.
During Cross Examination by prosecution counsel Dr Babajide Martins, Haruna insisted that he could not recall any instance when LASEMA officials, or the then Commissioner for Physical Planning, Mr Toyin Ayinde, were prevented by the church members from gaining access to the collapse site.
He said: “Apart from the LASEMA GM who said he had a Herculean task passing through the crowd, no other had problems passing through.
Describing further the tension and how chaotic the traffic and surging crowd who were all trooping there on hearing of the collapse, ACP Haruna added that the situation was compounded by the nearby market where nearly all traders and passers by joined the crowd including those inside vehicles.
“It was such an overwhelming situation that many of the statutory responders had to disembark from their vehicles and trek down to the accident site but it was only on the first day as the situation became fully normalised as from the second day.”
“I was there throughout the rescuing operation. LASEMA and NEMA used to work in the day, go back home and come back in the morning to continue but the rescuing operations continued throughout the nights”
When Martins asked him why he concluded that the rescuers were church members or worshippers, Haruna said “commonsense suggests that they were.”
Following the prosecution’s application for an adjournment, Justice Lawal-Akapo adjourned further proceedings till June 28.