Accra in shock and mourning after deadly Ghana fire

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Ghanaian mourners often wear red and black

In the middle of heavy floods last Wednesday night, an explosion at a petrol station in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, killed at least 150 people. As an official three-day period of national mourning starts , Elizabeth Ohene reports from a city in grief.

Across Ghana, flags are flying at half-mast and many public buildings have been draped in black and red bunting - common funeral colours here.

Over in New Zealand, our team participating in the under-20 football World Cup have taken to the field with black armbands.

Ghanaian communities all over the world are getting together to organise help for their home country.

The phone lines between Ghana and the rest of the world have been extraordinarily busy as Ghanaians abroad try to find out exactly what happened on the night of Wednesday, 3 June, and ascertain if family and friends are safe.

We are all being encouraged to wear black and red clothes to demonstrate we are in mourning, but that is the easy part. We are well-known for dealing with grief publicly and spectacularly.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
It remains unclear how many people died in the inferno

When the official period of national mourning ends on Wednesday, a memorial service will be held near the site of the fire that devastated part of the capital city, and where the majority of people died.

It is not quite clear how many people we are mourning, as there is still no official number of those who died between Wednesday night and Thursday morning in the floods and the fire.

The figures range from between 150 and 200. It might be more, and the real tragedy is we might never know just how many people died.

Bodies are still being found in drains and sewers, and it is not unlikely that, in the next few days and weeks, the sea will give up more bodies.

The morgues are full and hospital authorities are reported to have given up to 28 days for families to claim the bodies.

That is going to take some doing. Many of the bodies were burnt beyond easy identification and, sadly, it is likely to take some time before some people are missed, searched for and confirmed dead.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Fuel from the petrol station was spread by flood waters - and then ignited
Image source, Steven Anti
Image caption,
Cars were washed away and ended up on top of trees and walls

It is the rainy season here, and it had been raining heavily for a while that Wednesday evening. People were trying to get home from work.

The rains were not abnormal for the time of year and the flooding would not have alarmed many on the roads to start with. When it rains, Accra floods; it is one of the most predictable things in our city.

So it would have been a diverse group of people who were taking shelter in and around the petrol filling station to wait out the rain.

They would have been vendors selling umbrellas in the rain and food for those on their way home. They would have been passengers in buses and vans being taken to all parts of the city. They would have been cars whose drivers and occupants had also stopped to let the rushing waters subside.

'An overgrown village'

It is not clear how and why the fuel started leaking from the station but the fast-flowing flood waters quickly spread the fuel.

Then the lights went out; that too, unfortunately, has become part of normal life in Ghana.

A generator was started to provide lighting, a spark was produced by the generator, and it is widely reported that this ignited an inferno on a fast-flowing river through the centre of our city.

The devastation is dramatic and has stunned the population.

The hospitals are dealing with burn victims and flood victims. Stories are emerging of the bravery and kindness of strangers during that night of horror that renew faith in humanity.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
There is hope the disaster may lead to change in Ghana

But as the waters recede and the sheer scale of the death and destruction become clear, there is growing anger and consternation among the people.

This is a city that is choked with plastic. If we did not know it before, our city has been exposed as an overgrown village with pretensions of grandeur.

Many parts of the city look as though there was a tank battle fought in the midst of an urban war.

The flood waters deposited motor vehicles of all kinds in the most unlikely places - atop walls and trees, inside drains and piled on top of each other.

Many fence walls around grand homes in Accra have collapsed. A surprising number of people had to take shelter on the roofs of their homes and watch as the flood waters entered their rooms and their belongings floated away.

Uphill task

There is a light industrial part of Accra that is home to car showrooms and workshops; they have been flooded and the cars have been ruined.

Very few businesses, never mind private homes or individuals, carry any insurance in this country - and that means the losses are total.

There is no life insurance for those who died, no insurance on the office buildings or residential homes that have collapsed.

The market women whose goods have been washed away have no insurance, the mid-size businesses are most likely under-insured and most of the commercial vehicles would have third-party insurance, the minimum that the law requires.

Our city is not looking well and we, the people, are in extreme distress. We shall be grieving for far longer than the three days of official national mourning.

But there seems to be a general feeling that the shock of this tragedy will force attitudinal change in the behaviour of the citizens of Accra.

The prospect of that change, like the clean-up and the reconstruction, are part of an uphill task.

For the moment, this is a city in shock and in mourning.

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