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How Navy chopper crashed

Mrs. Rhoda Ohochukwu, the middle-aged matron of the school, told our correspondent that on that day, the chopper glided distressingly towards the field as one…

Mrs. Rhoda Ohochukwu, the middle-aged matron of the school, told our correspondent that on that day, the chopper glided distressingly towards the field as one of its propellers already violently detached from it, skidded aimlessly downwards landing somewhere in the school compound.

The chopper lurched on, heroically saving scores of school children’s lives by the decision of its pilot to avoid the football field. A split second later, the children heard a big bang. Minutes later, the entire village was in panic. Nobody knew where the helicopter fell into.  

This was around 1:30pm.  It took about two hours later before security men arrived in the village. From the sand excavation site near Mirichiochi stream where over forty workers scooped sand with shovels unto waiting tippers to the NNPC pipeline location, there was pandemonium.

The sand excavators milled around in wooden canoes paddling groups of security men through the shallow stream to the inner recess of the nearby forest. The search for the temporarily missing helicopter had begun. Two factors hindered the quick location of the crash site: the difficult terrain of the swamp and the fact that there was no smoke emanating from the abyss it fell into.

After painstaking multi-directional searches aided by the locals and their vigilante groups, the mangled bodies of the Naval personnel were brought out from the swamps and taken to the school field where another  Naval  helicopter had landed and a Naval ambulance was also parked alongside other military vehicles. The matron of the school stressed that the security operatives had a very difficult time trying to salvage the bodies. “They were all muddy, looking rough and exhausted”, Mrs. Ohochukwu said.

She gave a graphic detail of how the bodies were looking when they were brought to the field. “One of the bodies, that is, of the huge man among them, was headless. The other body was intact save for missing legs. The third body was cut into two with only the legs bearing military boots,” she narrated. She did not recall seeing a fourth body being brought to the field. According to her, the bodies were afterwards taken away in the military ambulance.

Two hours later, at about 5:30pm, our reporter arrived at the scene. It was already getting dark, but he met a Navy Commodore (names withheld) there. Although he refused to answer many of the questions put to him, he, however, volunteered that there were four personnel on board and all of them were dead. As he was talking, our correspondent walked a few steps away from him and sighted one of the propellers of the crashed chopper. Its serial number N771 was visible.

The commodore said the crew had taken off from Warri upon receiving an intelligence report that bunkerers were operating on the high seas between the Nun River off Kaiama and the high seas adjoining Brass, all in Bayelsa State. It was while on the trail of the bunkerers, the officer revealed, that the crew discovered that the chopper needed a re-fuel. So, it headed for Port Harcourt to do just that. And at Ogbodo, over the fields of Isiokpo Government Secondary School, the first sign of the disintegration of the distressed chopper became glaring to the pupils joyfully playing.

But to Princewill Owhonda, 60 years old and owner of the sand excavation site near the crash site, the incident was an additional stress. His job and those of his labourers are traditionally tense and hectic. That day, they became more stressful. For hours, they used their wooden canoes to skip the security men through the forest.

Owhonda told our reporter that they were gingered by the monetary promise made to them by the security men. “We worked with them tirelessly until the dismembered bodies were recovered from the wrecked plane”, Owhonda said. However, a day after when the labourers went back to the site to collect some of their canoes, shovels and other implements, they were barred from doing so by a stern-looking team of soldiers and naval ratings that’d cordoned off the crash site. He said some of his boats had capsized the previous day while they were trying to reach the bodies of the chopper crew.

Another sand excavator, Mr Bright Azubuike, corroborated what Owhonda said about the monetary incentive promised to them. He complained that the extra fatigue occasioned by the search effort by his workers had made some of them to fall ill. “We left our canoes at the crash site and when we wanted to go back and fetch them, we were not allowed by the navy people”, Azubuike said.

Azubuike and his team of sand excavators were not the only ones turned away from reaching the crash site. Reporters that arrived braving to take snapshots were disappointed. There were soldiers manning the entry point through the site of the NNPC pipeline. There was also local vigilante turning inquisitive reporters back even before they neared where the soldiers were standing.

At about nine in the morning on Wednesday, a brigadier-general and two expatriates in the official vehicles of Setraco, one of the road construction companies working on the East-West road, went into the forest. After about an hour, they came out and left.

From the first day the mishap occurred till date, the navy spokesperson in Port Harcourt has not volunteered any useful information to journalists. He refused to say whether or not the copter belonged to the navy. He refused to disclose whether there were casualties or not.

A day after the incident when he was asked about the identities of the victims, he promised to call back, but never did. Our correspondent gathered that three of the victims who were Muslims were buried according to Islamic rites a day after the crash at a cemetery near Tipper Garage in Port Harcourt. The fourth person was conveyed to Plateau State on the instruction of his family.

The Tipper Garage Islamic funeral rite was attended by Gen. Sarkin Yaki Bello, Commander of the Joint (Military) Task Force (JTF) in the Niger Delta, Commander of the 2nd Amphibious Brigade, Gen. Ladan, among many others.

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