It is Saturday evening and there is heavy activity in and around the Atomic Roundabout located on the Legon-Madina-Adenta stretch in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
A bang occurs. It is potently brash and decisively destructive. At once. An explosion had occurred. The Mansco Gas Filling Station, located some few metres away from the Roundabout, had caught fire.
Soon, the explosion would schlep its way through – rather angrily; devastating anything in sight – a nearby TOTAL Filling Station, another Filling Station Benab, eggs, oranges, jewelry, furniture, cars, billboards, biscuits, fizzy drinks, humans.
It is not a pretty sight. In minutes, the huge eruption that had occurred was as dramatic as the scenes that followed: a residential property’s wall collapses in whole while a man’s entire living room is razed down completely. Everything was gone.
An impact was felt. Ten kilometres south of the scene, a radio station’s Manager is awoken in his sleep by what he says sounded like a bomb. Five miles away from the epicenter, in another direction, a young banker, who sees the skies turn a combination of colours, hurriedly shepherds his family of four out of their residence, heading out to nowhere – for as long as they were safe.
Social media and peer-to-peer platforms came through with enough detail to get a nation’s attention. Local news outlets characteristically switched to operations mode, dispatching teams. The worse had happened. A city’s life had been jolted, a township had been brought to its knees by an explosion which had no mercy, not even for non-living things not interfering with its brutish self.
The explosion announced its intimidating evolution in not so pleasant ways.
“I have just heard a loud bang; I don’t know where it is coming from,” said a Facebook post by a woman who gave her location as Tema Motorway, an appreciable detachment from the precincts of the blast.
Messages of distress poured in. They were ample to paint a perfect picture of pandemonium.
Around the facility, sprints for life were made; humans run over each other, cars and motorcycles (in attempts to escape) hit pedestrians. A different kind of apocalypse was taking place before the very eyes of a city having its standard evening quiet time and preparing to call it a day.
The fire raged on, causing considerable fear and panic. In major schools nearby – the University of Ghana and the University of Professional Studies, as well as the Presbyterian Boys Senior High School – students ran for their lives, clutching on to anything, anywhere, to stay safe. Some were evacuated to nearby facilities. Around the scene of the blast, a lot had been lost in seconds, and wares were deserted in minutes thanks to the ferocious inciter of terrible scale.
For a decent amount of time, little was done to hold back the fire which reared its ugly head so high, so huge that it seared the silence of the night – near and far – just to make a claim about how mighty it was. In its full show of strength, it managed to shape a city’s agenda for the ensuing hours of the night.
New and traditional media went into an overspill. All night. There was enough to feast on – tremble, varied eyewitness’ accounts, tales of misses by a whisker, what is, what should have been, and angst.
Firemen, drawn from within the capital and close to the scene, would later show up to be counted as men of valor and dedication willing to douse a wreck ball that stood to threaten their occupational and structural intelligence, and capacity. For hours into the night, they did what they were called to do, attempting to minimize the magnitude of the rubble.
Later, the rains would come through with adequate downpour to rip through the shackles. But it did little, too, considering the extent of the blast, and giving the firemen some more work into the next morning.
On Sunday October 8, 2017, an understandable atmosphere of grief and sorrow was the depiction at the scene. The pungent smell from the previous night’s damage was too strong.
Hundreds had come to witness the extent of devastation. For the uninitiated and uniformed, it was good time to catch up. On the edges of the overpass that sits atop the Atomic Roundabout, hundreds stood to feed on the near-apocalypse scenes beneath them. It was an assembly of media, security and political heads, with another gathering of passers-by cordoned off with police barricade tapes.
Vicentia Kporku, a.k.a. Daavi Special, a food vendor who operates some 50 metres from the scene, recounted her experience during the burst. She cuts different looks of okay and trepidation; they are quite mixed for the fairly aged Kporku, who speaks of how she escaped the blast narrowly together with her five workers at the small eatery she maintains along the shoulders of the stretch.
“It could have been worse,” she says, pointing to a tiny scratch she had on her legs, acquired in an attempt to escape the fury of the fire.
“I am yet to hear from my workers. Some went as far as Adenta and others, too, are yet to call,” she says in the local Ghanaian Twi language, spoken by a majority of the people in the national capital.
Kporku’s narration is shared in part by dozens who also fled the scene while the blast continued. Like many others, Gideon Dzreke, a pump attendant at the Benab Filling Station, said all he saw was a bang, followed by shouts of misery and a call to action for survival.
“I had to flee; my colleagues were also nowhere to be found. We were all running for our dear lives. The force behind the fire was so loud. It was like a bomb,” says Dzreke.
“It is by divine grace that I am alive,” continued Kporku, adding to a number of testimonies around divinity on and off site, one being that a larger number of casualties would have been recorded had it happened the night before when some old students of the Presbyterian Boys Senior High School grouped for their annual Bonfire event.
An officer from the Criminal Investigations Department of the Ghana Police Service on duty. PHOTO/OBED BOAFO
At the scene on Sunday morning, protocol officers cued in an important running order. There is an expected visitor – the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana, Mahamudu Bawumia, who had to cut short a tour of the Northern Region, to ascertain the extent of damage. A deputy Minister of Information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah announces to a group of media people that Bawumia should be there in minutes.
Bawumia zoomed in. A convoy of saloon cars slided past a make-shift police entry point. He dismounted and headed straight to the scene, where he was briefed by the Deputy Director General of the National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO), Abu Ramadan, whose men had been at the scene all night, all morning.
The Vice President was joined by other Politicians including Attorney-General Gloria Akufo, who later spoke of her experience with the blast.
Clad in a traditional all-black Ghanaian cloth of sorrow, she placed her two hands on her head while Bawumia addressed the media. She was in the quintessential traditional posture of deep mourning and grief.
“I traveled for a funeral and came late only to meet the explosion. I thank God for my life and for that of my old lady who was around at that time in my house. The colour of my house has changed to black; some of my sliding doors and ceiling have also broken,” Akuffo later told journalists.
As the Vice President prepared to leave, a man behind the Police Barricade tape screamed “let’s do the right thing.” He would later explain.
“We have always been experiencing these kinds of disasters but little action has been taken to address the root causes and prevent their reoccurrence. The owner of the Gas Filling Station here has, for years, been complaining about the close proximity of some of the shops to his facility but nobody listens; they said he was full of himself. Today, here we are faced with this.”
Another man wearing a protest cum advocacy-like T-Shirt would also add his voice to the call for sanity.
“This is unacceptable. We can’t always behave like this. I am sad but this could have been avoided.”
The calls were in perfect tune to that of the Vice President who was emphatic in his address to the media while he visited.
“We are going to move to deal with it, and quickly.”
Bawumia’s boss and President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, later spoke to the issue at hand, calling for “a stop”, a plea embedded in what many say are lapses in the administration of laws that govern the operation of Filling Stations – gas, petrol et al.
“We cannot continue with them,” referring to the obvious disregard for national and community bye-laws by the operators of the stations.“It is one too many. We cannot afford anymore. Everybody involved in the industry to recognize that we all have to make adjustments to be able to guarantee the safety and security of our people, so these things do not happen again. I need your support, and the co-operation of the people of Ghana to make sure that the policies that we will be bringing out succeed, so that such incidents become a thing of the past and not of our future.”A repetitive call some have punched holes into, Conversations about getting things right are visited every now and then when a major blast occurs such as the worst in Ghana’s history – the June 3, 2015 Nkrumah Circle Goil Filling Station accident that claimed over 100 lives, and which led to the establishment of a five-member committee chaired by a retired Justice of the Court of Appeal, Isaac Justice Douse.
The call for stringent measures is high on the agenda for the Ghana Gas Manufacturing Company, whose CEO, Frances Ewurabena Essiam blames past and present regimes for neglecting her outfit. Essiam is hoping action will be expedited on the implementation of the LPG Cylinder Exchange/Recirculation programme (Gas Exchange Programme), mooted by the National Petroleum Authority.
Both organizations and other stakeholders, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ghana Standards Authority, hope the programme, which would see cylinder bottling plants making onward delivery to the stations, will curb the high incident of explosions.
Chief Executive Officer of the NPA, Hassan Tampuli, has argued that the programme is ideal if Ghana is to make any headway in limiting these explosions.
A model experimented in other countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Brazil, it places the responsibility of filling the cylinders in the hands of the bottling companies, who in turn dispatch them to the retail outlets in exchange for empty ones, meaning domestic or individual users only get to use cylinders that change hands from one person to the other, from time to time.
Civil society is in support of the Gas Exchange Programme.
Part of an August, 2017 publication by Think Tank, IMANI, read:
“Even though Ghana has experienced a number of gas explosions in the past, the thing that draws attention and public outcry concerning the recent explosions is the level of fatality. Gas refill stations have increasingly been brought closer to consumers in order to meet needs and this practice invariably has multiplied the fatality rate of explosions. Any move to reduce fatality will require an effective means that will remove gas refill sites from residential communities without undermining access to LPG.
“The common sense deduction then is that the cylinder exchange model has full potential to reduce the fatality of gas explosions because it eliminates the need for consumers to be exposed to direct dispensing of LPG. However, given Ghana’s unique situation as the only country in the world that still relies solely on gas refill stations located in residential communities, it is the only country that has recorded fatal deaths due to LPG explosions and fires at gas refill stations within residential communities. The direct effect of the cylinder exchange model on reducing gas explosions may only be correctly analyzed perhaps after a couple of years of implementing the policy in Ghana.
“Further, gas explosion may be more a function of adherence to safety measures than of the location of gas stations. A study assessing the impact of fuel filling stations on the environment in Ghana found that most gas filling stations under study violated critical safety requirements exposing the community to several levels of risk.”
IMANI argues that even though there may be structural implementation issues to the programme, it would become useful when it fully hits home. They offered some ways the country could work around the programme if it ever gets to take off. Over nine points, they noted that:
*It will be expedient to fast track the recapitalization of the Ghana Cylinder Manufacturing company to facilitate production of smaller size cylinders (3kg and 6kg) or engage the private sector to provide them. This will facilitate rural access to LPG given the relatively cheaper cost of the smaller size cylinders.
*Position the country to eliminate malpractices (such as unauthorized cylinder filling, unlicensed distribution, under or over filling and cylinder theft by standing ready to enforce regulations through innovative means). For example; the Indian Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources in 2012 created an online portal that provided real time information on the supply chain distribution system including distributor ratings. This reduced diversion of LPG commercial sales and facilitated overall transparency in the distribution business.
*There is the need to correctly identify and separate market segments, that is, domestic, commercial and industrial in order to adequately serve each consumer segment.
*The regulator must stand ready to enforce fool proof safety measures that will curb gas explosion at bottling/filling sites. There is also the need to undertake rigorous public education and sensitization on LPG and handling practices especially in view of the potential for increased access to rural areas
*The Cylinder Exchange implementation plan should have a long term view and should be scalable for example through the establishment of more bottling plants which are appropriately distributed geographically per year so that future demand growth is well catered for.
*Gas Tanker businesses as well as gas refill stations should be worked with and supported to redefine their business models in order to take advantage of the potential business opportunities that are expected to emanate from the implementation of the Cylinder Exchange Policy. This will also help to prevent a situation where existing gas refill stations rush to dispel/sell off stored gas to avoid perceived losses caused by an outright ban and by so doing create an artificial shortage of LPG. Tanker operators may merge and form partnerships with bottling companies so that their services may be employed in transporting LPG from production points to bottling plants.
*Explore and acquire highly efficient distribution management software that would facilitate the running of the cylinder exchange model in order to prevent situations where consumers are not able to access services. For instance; Supergasbras, one of the largest LPG retailers in Brazil which supplies 1.5 million tonnes of LPG per year to over 10 million households via the cylinder exchange model employs the SAP Secondary Distribution Management software which provides efficient administration and automation of the entire process chain from order entry to transport planning and invoicing.
Eyewitnesses to the Saturday October 7 disaster have attempted an official account of what might have caused the outbreak, the legend of all being a mysterious Khebab seller – said to be the source.
The story goes. A truck carrying Liquified Petroleum Gas pulls up at the Station to offload its stock. In discharging, a slip occurs through one of its points, the gas evaporates and in full in a manner that caused persons around to run for cover. The leaked substance catches fire from what is believed to be a naked flame from the Khebab seller’s set nearby. The destruction occurs. End of story.
The tale’s credibility and sequencing has been questioned by some citizens while officialdom and the security establishment have gently asked for ‘proper investigations’ to be conducted before any conclusions are arrived at.
President Akufo-Addo, who made his way to the scene on the afternoon of Monday, October 9 (in the company of more politicians, including the Chief of Staff Frema Osei Opare) has maintained the need for a concerted national effort at addressing the rampant blasts; once again hinting of a policy to act as backbone for the sector. He later dashed to some hospitals in the capital hosting victims of the blast, an activity his Number 2, Bawumia, had similarly performed a day earlier.
Later in the afternoon, Akufo-Addo welcomed, to the Presidency, the family of Mohammed Ashiley Yakubu, a reporter of local television station NET 2 and a member of the Presidential Press Corps, who lost his life while he was on duty at the scene on Saturday. Akufo-Addo promised to personally foot the bill of his funeral and burial rites.
While losses are still being counted, discussions continue to hold in high and low places on just one thing – a lot of damage has been done already but sanity can at least prevail within the downstream sector, to offer, as President Akufo-Addo believes, security to the Ghanaian people.
Saturday’s blast was the eighth in four years according to the Ghana Standards Authority. Official number of deaths recorded as of Monday October 9, 2017, stood at 7 while over a hundred are reportedly injured from wounds of varying degree, mostly burns.
Official investigations are ongoing.