The government of the Republic of South Africa, on Saturday took back home 66 embalmed bodies of victims of the September 12 Synagogue Church of All Nations, SCOAN, building collapse.
The identified bodies, which had been under the care of the Lagos State government at the mortuaries of the Mainland Hospital, Yaba, and Isolo General Hospital, Isolo, were part of the 80 victims from Nigeria and neighbouring countries who lost their lives in the incident that is undergoing a coroner’s inquest.
As early as 4am, an entourage of South African government officials, medical and health workers, military and plain clothes security personnel, among others, began taking possession of the bodies at the Mainland Hospital morgue and Isolo General Hospital, from a special medical team set up by the Lagos government.
It was gathered that the high-powered entourage, estimated to number over 100, touched down shortly before midnight at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos in a South African Airways passenger aircraft.
Soon thereafter, a South African Airways cargo plane landed at the airport, bearing a comprehensive shipment of incident response equipment that included four state-of- the-art refrigerated mass disaster, four pick-up vans, waste disposal trucks, collapsible air-conditioned tents, refuse bins, trolleys, body bags, generators, Personnel Protective Equipment, PPEs, etc.
When our correspondent visited the morgue of the Mainland Hospital around 7am on Saturday, it was a beehive of activities as not less than 50 members of the South African retrieval team were on ground.
The approach to the morgue was under heavy guard by a detachment of the Lagos State security Outfit, OP MESA, who checked unauthorised entry into the premises even as no less than 10 South African men and women, dressed in military fatigues, were seen keeping watch as health officials dressed in PPEs loaded the corpses wrapped in sealed and labelled body bags, one after the other, into the waiting refrigerated mass disaster trucks.
The manual loading of the bodies, arranged in rows inside the specially designed trucks, each with capacity to hold 23 bodies, took over 10 hours, as the personnel who worked in teams, took scheduled rests in between.
Solid wastes generated from the activity were packed in tightly sealed bags and loaded into a refrigerated waste disposal truck for onward transmission to South Africa, while two collapsible air-conditioned tents, one for decontamination of the personnel, the other for their relaxation were also set up on the premises.
Lagos State Chief Pathologist, Prof John Obafunwa, however, said it was in order and in no way suggestive of a vote of no confidence on Nigeria by South Africa.
Obafunwa, a professor of forensic pathology, who supervised the handover of the identified bodies, told newsmen that there was likelihood that more bodies would be identified in due course.
“We have been on ground since last night. My colleague, who led the other team to the Isolo mortuary is also on ground. The success of this exercise is due to combined efforts of the South African authorities with the Lagos State government.
“The South African government decided to take this trouble because it is at liberty to do so. To the best of my knowledge, the South Africans have not complained of the way the rescue was handled.
“We have been working together. If there are issues, I believe those involved in the rescue will talk and the issue may come up at the inquest,” he pointed out.
Giving a rundown of the identification process, he recalled that five families of the victims had earlier presented themselves at the state government’s centre for collection of tissue samples for DNA identification.
It would be recalled that during his inaugural lecture on disaster preparedness seven years ago, Obafunwa had recommended the need for the procurement of similar refrigerated vans for mass disasters in the state, saying it would have been in order if Nigeria could boast 10- 20 of such vehicles.
Also speaking, the Chief Executive Officer, TOS Funerals, Taiwo Ogunsola, praised Lagos State government for its prompt and sustained response.
Ogunsola, whose outfit embalmed all the victims of the Synagogue collapsed building, however lamented challenges faced in the preservation of the bodies for the two-month period.
Meanwhile, a minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, who led the country’s repatriation delegation disclosed, at a press briefing in Lagos, last night, that the process of identifying all the corpses from the Synagogue building collapse had not ended.
“Of the 85 South Africans, we have received 74 bodies from Lagos State government and would be flown to South Africa at 10:50 pm from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, MMIA, to arrive at the early hours of Sunday (today). This would be through a chartered plane.
“And on arrival at the airport, short ceremony would be organised for the victims and the bodies would be handed over to their relatives.
“The process of identifying all the 85 victims including the three from Zimbabwe has not ended.
He explained that those identified were through DNA test, adding: “The test would be conducted to identify others who died in the tragedy.”
The minister added: “Of the 26 persons who were injured and repatriated to South Africa, 20 have been discharged after they have been certified okay by our medical experts.”