‘We held on to cylinder for 2 days as fellow passengers went down with ill-fated MV Soni’ …
With the name MV Soni boldly inscribed on its dark body, the ill-fated boat, strung together with wood, set sail for Gabon, at about 9 p.m. on March 15, after it had docked at the Oron quay for over a month to take passengers and complete other travel logistics.
During this period, the crew of five Nigerians, said to be Igbo, fraternized and made friends with passengers, the crew of other boats and staff of the dockyard. The Gabon journey was supposed to last three days, but, after five hours, some forty nautical miles off the Calabar waterways, near Malabo in Equatorial Guinea, the engine of the giant wooden boat stopped functioning right on the high seas. That was around 3 a.m. Nigerian time.
The head crew, whose name one of the survivors, Kieve Sani, gave as Daniel, an Igbo, though panicky, managed to “keep his voice calm and asked everyone who could pray to pray to his God: some of us prayed to Jesus while others prayed to Allah, but nothing happened”. Sani spoke on his hospital bed at Bakor Medical Centre, Calabar.
According to the survivor, “As the cacophony of praying voices became strident and the crew made desperate efforts to restart the engine, nothing happened, rather water started swirling into the boat which frightened us and everyone knew that something was going to happen and we started scrambling out of the boat with some clutching unto anything that could keep them afloat while some plunged straight into water with nothing to hold onto. “Those who could not come out simply went down with the sinking boat”.
He and the teenage lady, Hafsat, who was rescued along with him, were saved when they took hold of a 12- foot cylinder along with two others, his master and another lady, but, as the day went by, his master and the lady became too weak and unable to cling unto the cylinder and drowned.
“My master and another lady held on to the cylinder with us but, as time went on, my master could not continue and told us he was going; later, another lady went down, too. Only two of us were left and we continued to hold on to the cylinder for nearly two days before the Addax Oil people came”.
Sani, a Togolese, receiving treatment for trauma and body pains at Bakor Medical Centre, 127 Murtala Highway, Calabar, said the boat had 128 passengers with five crew members on board. “I was in Nigeria for one month and assisted the crew who became my friends in recording the names of the passengers in French and answering phone calls for them when somebody called from Gabon; so I know the number that started the trip that Friday night.”
The survivor said the boat started the journey in Oron, Akwa Ibom State, saying outside the five crew members who were Nigerians, the boat had only three passengers from Nigeria, a man and two ladies who were taking textile materials for sale in Gabon while the bulk of the other passengers were from Togo, Ghana, Niger, illegal immigrants being trafficked to Gabon.
The Togolese said he was being taken to Gabon by a ‘master” who asked for 500 cfa from him and he had paid 300 cfa after selling his car and would pay the balance after working in Gabon. Hafsat, the dark complexioned teenager, who was rescued along with Sani, could barely communicate in English and could only give her country of origin as Niger.
Mr Olayemi Abass, the Coordinator of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, for the South South zone, said in Calabar that 27 people had been rescued and those rescued were saved by the personnel of Addax Oil which has an operational base in the area . “Some were taken to Oron and two brought to Calabar and those in Calabar are receiving treatment at Bakor Medical Centre Calabar”
Mr Vincent Aqua, the Director General of the Cross River State Emergency Management Agency, SEMA, said nine corpses, comprising significantly of women and children, were deposited by NIMASA at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital on Sunday “and from the items recovered, which include women wrappers, slippers, SIM cards and wallets, it was apparent that the bodies were not Nigerians”.