Families which lost their dear ones on Thursday, May 16 when a mystical ancestral tree fell in Umudagu Mbieri Community, Mbaitoli LGA of Imo State are still counting their losses.
A pall of gloom and anguish still pervaded the community on Sunday, May 19 when this reporter visited the community to feel the pulse of bereaved families.
It was also observed that a stench has started oozing from the scene of the tragedy leading to experts calling for fumigation of the place to avert an outbreak of an epidemic.
Perhaps, worse-hit is the Iheme family which lost both parents. Mr. Godfrey Iheme, a land agent and his lovely wife, Rachael were killed by the ancestral tree leaving behind eight children to mourn them.
Their grief-stricken first son, Ikechukwu broke down intermittently while narrating how his father and mother, who were hale and hearty before the incident died.
Ikechukwu, a school leaver and welder revealed that he was returning to their house from his Umodu base on the fateful day when from a distance he began to hear noises. On enquiry, he said, he was informed that the tree popularly known as Uko had fallen at a time the night market which held at its base was in full swing.
He said his mind went to his mother, who sold groceries at the night market. Ikechukwu stated that it never came into his mind that his father would also be killed too.
On reaching the scene, rescue efforts were on and many people had massed at the place. Ikechukwu disclosed that on enquiry, he was told his mother had gone home resulting in his rushing to their house to make assurances doubly sure. On reaching their house, his mother was nowhere to be found.
Ikechukwu, who had just finished his welding apprenticeship rushed back to the market where he saw his father’s motorcycle. His father, Mr. Iheme had gone to market to bring back his mother. He was at the market when the mystery tree fell.
According to Ikechukwu’s 53-year-old uncle, Moses Iheme, it was easy to locate the lifeless body of Godfrey. ‘The tree broke his neck and legs,’ he informed. But locating the corpse of Mrs Iheme proved difficult because the tree buried her in the bowels of the earth. Moses disclosed that a caterpillar had to be used to excavate her corpse.
As he was narrating the calamity that has befallen their family, tears made to drop from his eyes but the man in him held the tears back. ‘I feel so bad; it is very painful to lose my brother and his wife at same time and in this circumstance,’ Moses lamented.
Moses was angered more by the fact that the tree would have been felled 15 years ago but for the resistance of the natives. According to him, the Charles Uwakwe-led executive of the community had wanted to cut down the tree but some indigenes of the community resisted the move preferring that the Uko tree be pruned only.
Godfrey Iheme and his wife left behind eight children namely Ikechukwu, Chibueze, Adanma, Amarachi, Ifeanyi, Kingsley, Blessing and Kelechi.
This reporter was also told that a nursing mother, Mrs Chinonye Ugorji met her untimely death at the market. She left her child at home to purchase Geisha at the market and did not return alive. The killer-tree hurried her out of the planet earth!
According to Chigozie Chukwu, a plumber, a three-year-old child whose mother kept in a wheel barrow also died in the incident. Her mother made to save him but had to change her mind when it was apparent that doing so would also result in her death.
Sixty-seven-year-old Mr Donatus Iheagwam also lost his 50-year-old wife, Mrs Elizabeth in the incident. Late Mrs Iheagwam sold foodstuff at the night market. According to Mr Iheagwam, they became panic-stricken when at about 8:30pm on the fateful day she had not returned from the market.
He disclosed that they went to the market after hearing that a calamity had occurred at the market and discovered that the tree fell on his wife. Her corpse was taken to Aladinma Mortuary. ‘I loved my wife and she loved me. We helped one another. Now that she is gone, I can only ask God to comfort me and our children.’ Late Mrs Iheagwam left behind six children, comprising five girls and one boy who are still in their teens.
Mr Uzoma Nwosu, an engineer is late Mrs Iheagwam’s younger brother. He also lamented the exit of his sister. ‘She was my only sister. Whenever I had problems, I would come to her and she would offer some pieces of advice which helped me. Now she is no more, I’m pained,’ Nwosu stated.
Sabina Nwosu, aged mother of the deceased broke down in tears while speaking with this reporter. ‘Elizabeth was my daughter in who I was well-pleased,’ she stated. It was the only thing she could utter before giving way to emotions.
Iheagwam and Nwosu called on government to mow down all ancestral trees in other markets and public places in the state that pose danger. Iheagwam also hailed the state government for opting to come to their aid in this period of their mourning. It was gathered that the Rhas Construction Company which handled the Hardel-Umuonyeali Road had wanted to cut down the killer-Uko tree but the natives again resisted it. The firm left it and did a little diversion. Even Archbishop Anthony Obinna had advised the natives to cut down the tree without the indigenes agreeing.
The tree until May 16 did not kill anybody. According to the natives, its branches that felled before the tree came down did not kill anybody. The branches also felled when nobody was in the market.
This might have made the natives to attach some mystical powers to the tree. Some people are reported to have also converted the tree to a worship centre. An indigene of the community told this reporter that he was returning late one night and saw some un-clad people worshipping and canting incantations at the foot of the tree.
However, it was discovered after its fall that the tree had died and dried up and therefore should have been mowed down a long time ago.
Speaking with this reporter, a prominent indigene of Ihitte-Mbieri Community, Dr. Eddie Ugorji revealed that what deceived the natives about the tree was its lush green nature. He explained that the lush green nature of the tree has now been discovered to be due to saprophytes. Saprophytes are plants that grow on other decaying plants.
Chief Ugorji regretted the tragedy which he said had taken its toll on the community and strangers. He revealed that when he went to Aladinma mortuary, he saw corpses of people who died during the incident littered there. ‘I broke down in tears, I couldn’t stand the sight. It was gory,’ he stated.
The tree gave no sign before falling. And it cannot be said to have been pulled down by rain. Chief Ugorji revealed that the tree gave way in the thick of a windstorm that preceded a light shower that fateful day.
The community has embarked on collation of people who died and those who were injured. The collation is important for record purposes and for possible assistance to be given to their families by government. Already, state governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha has promised to assist the bereaved families and the wounded.
He made the promise when he visited the scene of the incident. He however warned against superstition. His warning came on the heels of the resistance of the community for the tree to be cut down because it is believed that it provided some protection to the community.
Besides the financial aid which state government is planning for the victims’ families, there are also plans to immortalize the victims by building a monument at the scene of the incident. Chief Ugorji, who is Secretary/President-General of Ihitte-Mbieri Community said they are planning something similar to the Okigwe Roundabout in Owerri. The names of the victims would be inscribed on the monument, he stated.
‘It will be a tourist’s site. People will like to visit the place to see those who lost their lives in the tragedy. My heart goes to their families including my cousin who lost his wife,’ Chief Ugorji stated.
Truly, the incident is a heart-rending one. People who were hale and hearty on fateful day lost their lives simply because they came within the vicinity of the tree. This also should teach communities the lesson of not allowing big trees grow and flourish at markets and public places. While no one is canvassing the felling of trees in order to disrupt the eco-system, it is imperative that ancestral trees which pose great danger to people should be mow down before they like the Uko tree wreck havoc.
To the victims, we say adieu and to the bereaved families, take heart. The damage had been done.