Pope Expresses Sympathy for Nigeria Fire Victims

Death Toll at 600, So Far

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 29, 2002 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II publicly expressed his sympathy for the victims of the horrific fire that struck an army weapons depot in Lagos, Nigeria, on Sunday night.

In a telegram sent in the Holy Father´s name to Archbishop Anthony Okogie of Lagos, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, said that the Pope expresses “to all concerned the assurance of his closeness in prayer.”

“He commends the dead to the loving mercy of Almighty God, and invokes the divine blessings of strength and consolation upon their families, the injured, and all those who have suffered loss,” the message adds.

The Holy Father “likewise prays in a special way for the rescue workers and those involved in providing assistance to the survivors of the terrible disaster,” the telegram concludes.

Nigeria´s president declared a national tragedy today. He said the series of explosions at the weapons depot left 600 dead, many of them women and children who drowned in a canal while trying to run away, the Associated Press reported.

In a radio broadcast, President Olusegun Obasanjo said “over 600 bodies have been recovered,´´ including many from the Oke Afa canal in the northern Isolo neighborhood of this city of 12 million. “What happened in Lagos was a monumental tragedy,´´ he said.

Lagos Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu blamed the deaths on military negligence, the radio stations said. One Nigerian newspaper, Lagos´ daily Vanguard, estimated that more than 2,000 people were killed, while state television cited unnamed witnesses as saying between 750 and 1,000 bodies had been recovered. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

Army spokesman Colonel Felix Chukwumah said the explosions began when a fire spread to the depot at the Ikeja military base, which is surrounded by crowded slums and working-class neighborhoods. The blasts propelled shrapnel and shock waves for miles, shattering windows six miles away at the international airport and sending residents fleeing in panic.

Many victims apparently did not realize how deep the water was and drowned when they ran and drove vehicles into the Oke Afa drainage canal, witnesses said.

Chukwumah, the army spokesman, said he did not know how the fire started, but a police officer said on Sunday that it began at a nearby gas station. State and military officials said the fire was accidental.

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