The Synagogue Church of All Nations has opened its defence on a charge of building without approval brought against it by the Lagos State.
An Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP), Alaba Yahaya Haruna, who testified on Friday, told a Lagos High Court hearing the case that one of his patrol teams observed an aircraft flying low over the building located in the Ikotun Egbe area just before it collapsed.
Haruna, an Area Commander of the Eastern Ports Command, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, was Divisional Police Officer (DPO) of the Ikotun Egbe Police Station, Lagos, at the time the building collapsed.
The registered trustees of the church are facing trial alongside two engineers who built the building: Oladele Ogundeji and Akinbela Fatiregun, and their companies, Hardrock Construction and Engineering Company and Jandy Trust Limited.
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They are facing 110 counts of involuntary manslaughter following the collapse of one of the Church buildings in September 2014, which led to the death of 116 people.
Led in evidence by the Church’s counsel, Oluseye Diyan, the witness relived the incident.
“On that fateful day on September 12, 2014 at about 12:30 hours, there was a radio communication from the police control room at Ikeja that they were receiving calls from the public of an aircraft flying at low altitude over the church. I was directed by the Area Command to confirm the incident and monitor the aircraft’s activities.
“I wanted to go out and direct my men to watch out for the aircraft when I received another report of an airplane flying at a very low altitude. I went outside but I couldn’t see it, by that time it had gone. I received a call later from Inspector Lucky Ugbaja, stationed at the church that one of the church’s buildings had collapsed,” Haruna explained.
According to him, the radio room had earlier called the Police Airport Command to confirm whether it was carrying out any activity in the SCOAN vicinity.
Haruna said when he arrived the church’s premises there was a large crowd and the few policemen there were trying to manage the situation. More onlookers kept trooping in and the crowd spilled to the roads outside the church, causing serious traffic gridlock.
“We were overwhelmed,” Haruna told the judge, adding that he called for more policemen, which was provided.
He said his men cordoned off the scene in an attempt to restrict entrance to only those who could assist the church members and other worshippers in the rescue operation.
“Those I met there were SCOAN worshippers, they were bringing out so many people from under the rubble. Most of the victims were alive. Some were injured, some were not.
“Later, the Red Cross, Life Savers, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) arrived and joined us in the rescue,” Haruna added.
The witness stated that the LASEMA General Manager complained of difficulty in gaining access to the scene of the collapse because of the crowd and that the journalists in his entourage were denied access, following which he apologised and ordered his men to let the journalists in.
He said the rescue mission lasted about seven days.
During Cross Examination by the prosecution counsel, Babajide Martins, the police officer insisted that he could not recall any instance when LASEMA officials, or the then Commissioner for Physical Planning, Toyin Ayinde, were prevented by the church members from gaining access to the collapse site.
“Apart from the LASEMA GM who said he had a Herculean task passing through the crowd, others had no problems passing through.
When asked why he concluded that the rescuers were church members or worshippers, Haruna said “commonsense suggests that they were.”
Following the prosecution’s application for an adjournment, Justice Lawal-Akapo adjourned further proceedings till June 28.