No fewer than 31 people scrambling for free food and gifts in a new generation church in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, were feared dead in a stampede yesterday.
The church, Kings Kingdom Assembly, was said to have invited members of the public for its fourth edition of free gifts and distribution of food items.
Although the church is located at Tombia Extension, GRA, the programme was organised at the Polo Club in the same area.
Some of the invitees were said to have arrived since Friday while others came as early as 6.30 am on Saturday for the event scheduled to commence at 9 am.
Sources said a huge crowd including desperate seekers of free food stormed the smaller gate of the Polo Club as some polo players opened it to have their training session.
A stampede ensued in the process, causing the death of about 20 people at the scene while more casualties were recorded among the unconscious victims that were rushed to the hospital.
A source who spoke in confidence yesterday said: “The incident occurred this morning. The church invited people for its fourth edition of food and gift items distribution. Some people came since Friday while many others came as early as 6.30 am this morning for the programme scheduled to begin at 9 am.
“Some sports people arrived around 8 am and opened the small gate to have their training session, but the surging crowd who wanted to gain access through the small gate caused a stampede.
“I counted 21 bodies on the ground.”
It was gathered that while the dead victims were deposited in the morgue, other unconscious ones were battling for survival at the Military Hospital in Port Harcourt.
The police yesterday confirmed that 31 persons had died in the incident, describing it as unfortunate.
Another source, who identified himself simply as Effiong, said: “The programme was held at the Polo Club. So, many of the people who had attended the all-night service moved from the church to the Polo Club.
“People called their loved ones, neighbours and friends, telling them to come for the annual giveaway event.
“Before 6 am, the place was filled up. At about 6:20am, more people arrived at the venue.
“Sighting the huge crowd, the church closed the gate to stop others from coming in.
“The crowd outside became overwhelming and the people forced the gate open, leading to a surge of people that caused the stampede.
“The distribution of food and gift items had not even started. Many people died, others were unconscious and they were all evacuated to the hospital.”
A visit to the Polo club revealed many abandoned wigs, footwear and other personal items of victims littering the ground.
Confirming the casualty figure, the Acting Public Relation Officer of the Rivers State Police Command, Iringe Grace Koko, said: “It was 31 persons that died. It was a stampede because a church was trying to give out palliatives. They were about to start the event.
“It was to start by 9am or so. But some persons went there, broke into the place and went inside.
“So people started rushing in and there was a stampede.
“From the information we have, the church was trying to gift items and food to assist the underprivileged.
“Investigation has commenced to ascertain the remote and immediate causes of the incident.”
How I lost my five-year-old son in stampede — Bereaved father
Samuel Orji-Eke, a survivor and father of a five-year-old boy who died in the stampede, yesterday narrated the circumstances that culminated in his death.
Orji-Eke, who attended the programme with his three children, including the deceased, called for a thorough investigation and justice, saying the church did not make adequate arrangements to control the crowd.
He said: “My son was five years old. Around 6.30 am, I attended the church programme with my three children. I was holding my son and carrying my six-month-old daughter in my arm while my wife was holding the other one.
“When we got there, the gate was locked and the crowd was not much. People were refused to entry, and in such a church event, the gate was not supposed to be locked. This made the crowd to swell and it became too much that the entire road was blocked.
“That was when they opened the gate and there was a mad rush to enter and it was in that process that a stampede occurred.
“We had entered the gate properly when people started to fall and the ones that were coming behind trampled on them. That was when they marched me and broke my hand and my son slipped off and he was marched to death.
“For now, we have not heard anything from the church and the pastor has not said anything.
“But from the information we gathered from the military hospital, they said that the pastor is aware of the incident but could not come to visit for fear of being lynched.
“He said they should collate details of all the people affected, that he will take full responsibility for them. They took our phone numbers and names.
“At the time the incident occurred, there was no presence of police officers but only ushers. It was when the place became rowdy that they came and started shooting in the air to disperse the crowd after the damage had been done.
“My son did not die immediately, but when it happened, there was no help or first aid.
“I am calling for justice for a church to openly invite people without proper logistics.”
My 11-year-old daughter missing, says mother of three
A woman, identified as Adamma Justice, complained that her 11-year-old daughter had been missing since the stampede.
She said: “I am looking for my 11 years old daughter. I came with two other kids.
“Kings Assembly invited us to come. Last year, we came and they gave us foodstuffs so we came this year.
“We were many at the gate, and I was not able to carry the three of them, so I hung one on the fence, and carried the small one on the back and the 11-year-old was in the crowd and they were pushing her. That was how I lost sight of her.”
Findings made by The Nation revealed that the church’s annual event began about seven years ago at the event park opposite Nigeria Air Force Base in Port Harcourt. Port Harcourt residents as well as people from neighbouring Imo, Akwa/Ibom and Abia states also travel down to Port Harcourt to take part in it.
However, the event was not held for two years on account of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anticipating a larger crowd at the resumption of the event this year, the church decided to move to a larger Polo Club venue to avoid any untoward incident.
Government will probe incident, says Wike
Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, said yesterday that the state government will constitute a probe panel to investigate the cause of the stampede.
Wike, who expressed grief over the loss of lives in the unfortunate incident, mourned the victims and expressed condolences to the bereaved families.
The governor in a statement signed by his Special Assistant, Media, Kelvin Ebiri, said: “On behalf of the Government and people of Rivers State, I pray for God to grant the bereaved families the fortitude to bear the loss of their loved ones.
“I also pray for the souls of all the faithful departed rest in perfect peace. And to the injured, I wish them speedy recovery.”
Buhari saddened by incident, admonishes events’ organisers
President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday expressed sadness over the incident.
In a statement issued by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, President Buhari admonished organisers of religious, political and other big events to plan well and carry them out in a disciplined manner to avert similar calamitous deaths and injuries.
The President directed that “all efforts should be made to provide relief to those injured in the unfortunate incident,” and that disaster and relief agencies of the Federal Government should maintain constant contact with the Rivers State Government to ensure that good care is taken of the relief efforts.
President Buhari expressed his condolences and that of the nation to the bereaved families and to the government and people of Rivers State, praying the Almighty to repose the souls of the deceased.
Rivers APC mourns victims
The Rivers State chapter of the All Progressives Congress (APC) expressed sadness over the ugly incident in a statement signed by its Publicity Secretary, Senibo Chris Finebone, describing it as unfortunate and heartbreaking.
Finebone said: “It is heartbreaking that a supposed well-intended programme of the church to save lives resulted to loss of same lives.”
He said while the church had good intentions, organisations desiring to float similar events must incorporate safety measures.
Finebone added: “While we appreciate churches and other voluntary organisations that strive to fill in the gaps that exist in the living conditions of the poor of society, we make bold to insist that such organisations should embed safety considerations into whatever they do.
“We know how our entire society treats issues of safety with indefensible levity, and this has remained the major cause of avoidable disasters across our land.
“We send our most profound condolences to the families that lost their loved ones to the sad incident this morning; the clergy and members of Kings Assembly Church”.