Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, SAN on Wednesday gave the go-ahead to the South African Government to claim the 54 bodies of South African victims of the building collapse at the Synagogue Church of All Nations, Alimosho, who have been positively identified through DNA tests.
The Governor who gave the consent at Lagos House, Marina, when he hosted a delegation from the South African Government led by a Special Envoy and Minister from the Presidency, Mr Jeff Radebe who had come to seek the assistance of the State Government in speeding the process of repatriation of the corpses of South Africans who died in the disaster said 70 bodies have so far been identified with 54 being South Africans.
The Governor, who had earlier invited the Lagos State team to brief the delegation during which the State’s Chief Examiner, Professor John Obafunwa gave a breakdown of the nationalities of victims identified so far informed that as more bodies out of the total 116 victims who died in the accident are positively identified by the Chief Examiner and his team of medical experts, the State Government would immediately release such bodies.
While seeking the understanding of the South African Government on the issue, the Governor said the state while being keen on getting the families to get to closure about the unfortunate incident is also being cautious to ensure that mistakes do not occur in terms of releasing bodies of victims to the wrong families.
“We have no reason to deny you the right to take those 54 bodies, you have my word, you can take them whenever you are ready to do so. It is left for you to decide whether to take them in batches or wait until we conclude the exercise. But if you are ready, my team will ensure that you take them without any delay,” Governor Fashola said.
While sympathizing with the Government and people of South Africa on the incident, the Governor said he understands how difficult the disaster must be for the South African President and the weight of pressure and expectation that he is going through.
Continuing, he said: “I understand the call by South Africans to get the bodies of their relatives but we cannot at this time get the process wrong because if we release a body, we want to ensure that each family takes the body of their relative. It will be un-pardonable for us to make mistakes”.
Explaining the choice of DNA tests to determine the identities of the victims, the Governor stressed that with the rubbles in the aftermath of the collapse, it was very difficult to salvage the bodies.
“The choice of South Africa for the test was a special decision to make the process easier for South Africans who bore the bigger brunt of the tragedy. So, since the relatives were in South Africa, it was easier to use a laboratory in the country where we could easily take samples from the deceased families for the test. It was meant to further demonstrate what our intentions were”, he explained.
While explaining the reason for setting up a Coroner’s Inquest into the disaster, Governor Fashola stated that it has been set up to investigate the cause of the disaster and should not be misconstrued as a trial.
He added that the Coroner’s Inquest would be taking evidence from all the parties concerned with the disaster so that it can be able to advice the government on what action to take concerning what has happened.
Speaking on the response of the State Government’s emergency response team when the accident happened, the Governor stressed that the State had capacity as first responders but had inhibitions from spectators.
The Governor said this prompted his visit to the premises of the Synagogue Church of All Nations when there were crowd control problem and with the understanding of the presiding pastor, he directed that all those who are not emergency response officials should yield place to the officials.
He gave a commitment to the team from South Africa that as the development unfolds, the State Government would keep them abreast of it and also used the occasion to commiserate with the South African Government on the death of the Captain of the South African national football team.
While giving an update on the status of the bodies after being invited by the Governor, the Chief Medical Examiner for the State, Prof. John Obafunwa stated that 116 bodies were recovered from the rubbles and have been subjected to post-mortem examination of finger prints, photography, collection of samples and so on.
He added that out of the 116 victims, 70 bodies have been identified positively through tests carried out at the DNA laboratory in South Africa and are made up of 54 South Africans while the rest are Nigerians, Benin nationals, Togolese and so on going by their names.
“We had to collect additional DNA samples to assist the laboratory. We’ve been working together and talking to the lab. It is expected that more results will come in more than the 70 we have identified,” Obafunwa said.
The Chief Examiner also informed that efforts are in top gear as the South African Consul General in Nigeria has written to him asking for the issuance of death certificate to those already identified.
Earlier, the Leader of the South African delegation and a Special Envoy and Minister at the Presidency, Mr Jeff Radebe, said the team was in Lagos to seek possible ways of speeding up the process of repatriation of the corpses because according to South-African culture and traditions, the dead are buried within a week.
“But today makes it two-months since the incident. I have also paid a condolence visit to President Goodluck Jonathan two days ago to convey the message of our President and find ways of speeding up the processes and reparations of the mortal remains of those 85 (81 South Africans) including those four who carry South African passports even though they are not nationals of our country,” he said.
He explained that arrangements have been concluded to convey the corpses of the four and take them to Pretoria and from where three would be taken to Harare in Zimbabwe and one to Kinshasa in the Congo Democratic Republic.
“The whole nation of South Africa is in mourning, especially the families that have to endure these two months of waiting in order to bring closure to this whole incident. We are ready to repatriate them as soon as we get the green light from the State Government”.
“We appreciate your government for the cooperation and our team has been briefing us on the challenges of identifying the bodies. But the bereavement was very tragic indeed and we have to get the bodies back to South Africa so it doesn’t get into more difficulties,” the diplomat said.
Also speaking, a Director General in the South African Presidency, Mr Cassius Lubisi explained that all necessary measures are already in place for smooth return of the bodies to South Africa.
He noted that two flights are ready for the exercise and that the team made up of specialists, will arrive as soon as they get the go ahead as it has all been paid for by the South African Government.