Bodies of 74 S.Africans killed in Lagos church collapse flown home
Long wails echoed through an airforce base hangar Sunday as grieving family members broke down during a ceremony to receive the remains of 74 South Africans killed in a Nigerian church building collapse.
Many could not fight back tears when names of those killed were called out and a procession of giant mortuary trucks carrying the bodies, slowly drove past the gathering to the tune of the "death march" played by the police band.
A total of 116 people -- including 81 South Africans -- were killed on September 12 when a multi-storey guesthouse collapsed at a Lagos mega-church.
The bodies were flown home aboard a cargo plane, two months after the accident, leaving behind another 11 victims to be repatriated after the DNA identification process is complete.
People were crushed when the guesthouse that provided lodging for foreign followers of popular Nigerian preacher and televangelist Temitope Balogun Joshua, commonly known as TB Joshua, was reduced to a pile of shattered concrete and twisted metal.
"This is indeed a sombre moment for our nation, the nation is in mourning," said South Africa's Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, leading the ceremony in Pretoria.
"This tragedy in many ways has united us in grief, it has reminded us of our shared humanity," he said.
Ramaphosa shook hands with bereaved family members, many of whom wore white TB Joshua's church scarves around their necks.
Franzette Saul, who lost her cousin Dan Samuels in the disaster, said the victims had visited the Nigerian preacher in search of salvation.
"They believed he would heal them.
then the opposite happened," said the 31-year-old from Cape Town.
- Agonised screams -Nigeria released the bodies on Saturday after a high-level government delegation spent a week in Nigeria to fast-track the repatriation process.
Around two dozen injured survivors were returned home 10 days after the accident.
Joshua had suggested that a low-flying aircraft reportedly seen over the building four times before the collapse was to blame for the disaster, and said he had been the target of an attack.
But expert witnesses at a coroner's hearing in Nigeria rubbished his theory and ruled out aerial sabotage or an explosion.
The court was told the guesthouse did not have planning permission.
Survivors recounted drinking their own urine for days to survive and listening to the agonised screams of those trapped and dying in the rubble.
Joshua placed a quarter-page advertisement in one of South Africa's major newspapers, the Sunday Times, offering "our deepest condolences" to the South African government and to families of victims, the "precious souls who lost their lives".
"Those who lost their lives in the incident died not in vain, but as martyrs of the Kingdom of God.
"Death to a believer is his release from the imprisonment of this world and his departure to the enjoyment of another world," said Joshua.
Members of the Synagogue Church of All Nations reportedly refused entry to rescue workers for three days, angering South Africans who said their family members could have been saved in those crucial hours.
Some 350 South Africans were thought to be visiting the church at the time of the tragedy.
- 'Gruesome accident' -Joshua, a wealthy self-styled miracle worker who counts presidents among his flock who call him "The Prophet" or "The Man of God" and who claims to see into the future, failed to appear before the coroner when he was first summoned.
The South African government said the plans to bring back the bodies had been delayed by a complicated verification process of the remains due to the "gruesome nature of the accident, which made the identification process difficult".
But the government sought to allay fears that the accident has strained ties between the continent's two powerhouses.
"This tragedy has reinforced the warm and fraternal relations between our two countries," said Ramaphosa.
South Africa is also helping to repatriate the bodies of three Zimbabweans and one from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had travelled to Nigeria using South African passports.
© 2014 AFP