Former players and officials of Iwuanyanwu Nationale (now Heartland) recently marked the 26 anniversary of their narrow escape following the ill-fated plane crash at Tamanrasset in Southern Algeria on September 18, 1994, on their return trip to Nigeria after honouring an African Cup of Champions Club quarter-final first leg tie against Esperance Sportive of Tunisia a day earlier. It was a moment of sober reflection and gratitude to God as some of the survivors recollect one of Nigeria’s black day in sports in this report by correspondent, TUNDE LIADI
From Spartans of Owerri to Iwuanyanwu Nationale
Iwuanyanwu Nationale were unarguably one of the best football teams in Nigeria in the late 1980s and early 90s shortly after the change of their nomenclature from Spartans in 1985 at the instance of sports philanthropist cum politician Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu who took over the ownership of the self-styled Naze Millionaires.
They lived up to their billing by winning five domestic league titles between 1987 and 1993 (including the maiden Nigeria Professional League title in 1990) and were also winners of the FA Cup in 1988.
The Naze Millionaires won their last league title in 1993 and were in high hope that they could win the African Cup of Champions Club competition in 1994 having gone so close on three previous occasions. They were beaten finalist in 1988 (losing to Entente Setif of Algeria) and also got to the semi-final in 1990 and 1991 respectively before losing to Nkana Red Devils (Zambia) and SC Villa (Uganda) on both occasions.
Under the tutelage of Alphonsus Dike, Iwuanyanwu Nationale had approached the 1994 edition with poise and they evidently ran over their first round foes, Zumunta AC (Niger) 6-1 on aggregate. They had it tough in the second round against Cameroon’s Racing Club Bafoussam but they still overcame them on the away goals rule with the aggregate scores at 4-4 after both games.
Road to Tamanrasset
They were paired with Esperance Sportive of Tunisia in the quarter-final and they proceeded to Tunis in a chartered Oriental Airline flight BAC 1-11 to honour the first leg. They were outplayed by the Tunisian side and subsequently lost 3-0 on September 17, 1994. They proceeded to the Airport in Tunis to begin their onward return to Nigeria aboard the same flight that took them to Tunisia.
But instead of returning to Nigeria with the hope of cancelling out the goals deficit they conceded in Tunis, they were involved in a plane crash that changed the course of their history. The Owerri side are yet to recover from that debilitating experience till date.
Survivors’ extraordinary accounts
The current Imo FA Chairman, Mazi Amanze Uchegbulam, was on the team’s entourage to Tunis recalled with vivid account on the fateful day in Tamanrasset where five people on board including two players lost their lives.
“The trip was through a chartered flight, Oriental Airline and the team was to go there and play and return immediately. I didn’t plan to go with them. I handed the team over to the NFF head of delegation, Alhaji Matori,” Uchegbulam told NationSport. “Somehow at the airport I was told that the players refused to board the plane saying that they needed to see the Imo FA Chairman.
“The players and officials of the team insisted that I must go with them even though I had no such plan. My wife objected, but somehow I didn’t want to create any problem so I went back home to pack my things to join them and we made that trip.
“We got to Tunis; we played the match and lost 3-0. We then got back to the hotel prepared and moved to the airport. We got to the airport and had even boarded the plane but somehow, we were delayed at the airport for almost three hours.
“We got to the airport around midnight but as at 3am we were still in the aircraft. We began asking them what the problem was and it was then the flight captain, Amaechi, told us that they were told to offset extra landing/ parking charges which they didn’t make provision for.
“The airport officials insisted that the team and other officials won’t leave until the charges are paid. They even put off the runway light. We met among ourselves and contributed money to defray the additional cost and the flight captain went ahead to pay.
“We were now set to leave by 4am but the flight captain had a premonition. He informed us that we were going to refuel in Tamanrasset, Algeria and that the weather was very bad in the morning, adding that was the reason why he had wanted to leave on time so that they could beat that obstacle. It was our first bad omen.
“We finally took off and took an hour and twenty minutes flight from Tunis to Tamanrasset to refuel. I wonder why they didn’t take the fuel in Tunis because if we had taken the fuel there, we would have gone directly.
“It was later we got to know that it was because of the exchange rates and the cost of aviation fuel in Tunis. Tunisian rate then for fuel was one dinar to one dollar while in Tamanrasset, Algeria it was 20 dinar to one dollar. It was cheaper to buy it there and it was the reason we went there to refuel. A little refuelling in Tunis would have taken us to Kano.
“We got to Tamanrasset but the weather was bad and the aircraft hovered for over an hour and forty minutes and it was getting worse. He had no fuel again to continue and had to do the emergency landing.
“Captain Chinedu Ogbonna was in charge of the flight but I heard that along the line Captain Amaechi who was the most senior took over the aircraft and landed the aircraft. However, instead of landing on the runway he landed across the runway because the weather was foggy.
“He headed for the terminal building but the wheel hit a mast on the terminal building and the aircraft lost control and cut into three. It was shown by CNN.
“We were lucky there was no fuel at all in the aircraft and it was the reason there was no fire outbreak when we crash landed.
“Rescue came almost immediately to address the injured ones and we were all taken to the hospital. It was at the hospital that goalkeeper Uche Ikeogu died after two days because he had internal bleeding and the hospital had limited facility to really ascertain the extent of his injury.
“He died before Nigeria’s Ambassador to both Algeria and Tunisia came to Tamanrasset to evacuate him to Algiers where he would have had access to better facilities to ascertain the enormity of his injury.
“We were lodged into the hotel while the injured remained at the hospital. Omale and the air hostess died instantly in the aircraft while Uche Ikeogu died after two days.
“It was the officials that majorly knew what happened because the players were fast asleep because of their exhaustion after the match; I sustained prolapsed disk injury.
“We later contacted Nigeria and I spoke with the then Imo Governor, Navy Captain Anieke. The BBC Sports wanted to interview me immediately but that was only conducted after the Imo State Governor was made aware of the situation.
“They later arranged for another aircraft which took us to Lagos and on arrival, the injured were evacuated to Eko Hospital while the rest who had no serious injuries went back to Owerri at the behest of the Imo Governor. The dead ones were brought back too and put in the mortuary,” explained Uchegbulam.
His account is almost similar to that of the then head coach of the team, Alphonsus Dike, but he said that the plane crash might not be unconnected with administrative shenanigans at the Tamanrasset Airport.
“Unfortunately the pilot is not alive because he would have been in a better position to answer the question about what actually transpired between him and the control tower but most of us felt he was not given permission to land,” Dike told NationSport. “The insinuation then was that the man at the control tower did not give us landing permission.
“The pilot tried without success to land but when he eventually did emergency landing he missed the runway. Before then, he had emptied his left over fuel. I was awake at the time and probably some other people too. It was scary when the plane could not land and was hovering over the sky.
“Some of us were awake while others were asleep especially the players like Omale and Ikeogu whom I am sure could be sleeping too when the incident happened. The impact was too much. The Airport Authority in Algeria took us to the hotel where we stayed for a while waiting for the instructions from Nigeria and from the officials of Iwuanyanwu Nationale. It was later they came to evacuate us.”
Uchegbulam also narrated two further significant events of note that had never been reported before now: “Immediately after the crash, over 30 Nigerians that were going towards Europe but stranded in the Tamanrasset desert came to our support when they heard that Iwuanyanwu Nationale plane crashed.
“They came in full turban to the hospital to come and enquire. In fact when I was called to come and see those that were looking for us I was initially scared until they started speaking Ibo to me that they were one of us and that we should not be scared with the way they dressed.
“They said they heard about what happened and they had come to lend their support. It showed the solidarity of Nigerians in Diaspora.”
One other significant story worth recalling according to Uchegbulam, was the dramatic manner the captain of the team, Mike Onyemachara was rescued after he was initially packed among the dead.
He recollected: “Mike Onyemachara was among the people they had taken to the mortuary that they thought had died. But when they evacuated the two pilots, air hostess and Eghomwanre Omale to the mortuary, Onyemachara was mistakenly moved along with them because he was unconscious.
“They called me to look at them in the mortuary but I told them to re-confirm if they were truly dead.
“When they got to Onyemachara’s turn they checked his pulse but were not convinced. The doctor then called for a stretcher and they lifted him from the mortuary to the ward; he recovered a few hours later in the ward. It is a landmark story that is important to mention.
“Goalkeeper Ikeogu had multiple internal bleeding and we were waiting for the Ambassador to arrive because we needed to move him to a better hospital but Ikeogu died before the arrival of the Ambassador.”
Also, Dr. Steve Olarinoye who was then a principal staff of the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), described the day as terrible even as he blamed the pilot’s greed for the avoidable crash.
“The flight was smooth until we discovered that the pilot was making efforts to land at the same airport where we refuelled on our way to Tunis. We got to know later after the crash that the cost of fuel there was reasonable,” explained Dr. Olarinoye. “We lost two players to the crash. The two pilots and a hostess died too.
“Do you know that it was the seat belt that saved me? I happened to be one of the few persons on board without any injury. To God be the glory but it was a terrible day.
“After the crash, the Federal Government sent Kabo Airline to airlift us from Tamanrasset Airport in Algeria.
“I make bold to submit that it was greed on the part of the pilot that caused the crash since he was bent on buying fuel at that airport.
“We later discovered that Kabo Airline that conveyed us back to Nigeria spent about one and half hours. It implies that if we had proceeded directly, the fuel we wasted while roving up there would have taken us to Nigeria,” he concluded.
The former captain of Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Mike Obi also said he was grateful to be alive after the incident and he noted he walked out of the plane without any scratch.
He decided to embrace Christianity because of his near death experience while expressing sadness over the death of his teammates.
The striker also revealed his sadness at his inability to lift the African Cup of Champions Club with Iwuanyanwu Nationale before he left for greener pastures.
“I noticed some signs that were too good but I had to keep it to myself so that I do not raise unnecessary panic among the players. I noticed the exchanges between the pilots and the air hostess and their mood was not good so I knew something was wrong,” Obi revealed. “It was that incident that led me to Jesus Christ now because I came out the same way I entered the plane.
“Ikeogu died in my hands because I was the one that was looking after him in the hospital; he was the most gentle in our team and his death was painful. “
Yet former midfielder of the team, Obinna Obiaka praised the efforts of the Algerians that came to their rescue immediately the plane crashed, adding they had their sights on staging a comeback in the second leg so as to dedicate it to the memory of their lost teammates.
“The return leg was more important to us. The reasons were, we wanted to win the trophy secondly we lost our brothers because of the same match. It was going to be the game of our lives but we lost eventually,” Obiaka told NationSport.
But Onyemachara admitted he was perhaps the luckiest describing the event of Tamanrasset as most traumatic: “Up till now, I am still going through the trauma after 26 years.
“I am yet to recover from the shock. Up till now it is as if they are still pursuing me with a Hilux car.
“When I came out of the aircraft, I started running aimlessly around the tarmac and they kept chasing after me with an ambulance. I remembered vividly when I fell down and they carried me into the vehicle and I was injected.
“I was given 12 injections each on my stomach, right and left hands. It was then I was properly taken care of. They thought I was dead when I fell down. They were perplexed. Initially I was not hearing anything. I thought I was the only one that made it out alive and that others in the aircraft were dead.”
Former Super Eagles attacker, Anthony Nwaigwe who was also on board the ill-fated flight BAC described the day as his most saddest even as he paid tributes to his late teammates.
He said: “Omale and Uche Ikeogu were very good people. They were both of different characters. They had different ways of dealing with different situations.
“Omale would come into the room and fill it with laughter. He had a sense of humour with his rib- cracking jokes while Ikeogu was a cool and calculative type that always wanted to help his teammates to ensure that they were comfortable. He was my roommate when we travelled for continental games and he was a very religious person.
“These two people were very lovely people to be with. Our hearts and minds still go to the families of the deceased.
“I couldn’t look at Uche’s mum’s face when we went for his burial because the woman was distraught because Ikeogu was due to travel to America after the 1994 Champions Cup competition to visit his wife,” stated the former Nigerian league highest goals scorer.