Shoeless and scared, we fled the deadly ‘Atomic’ explosion

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FIREBALL! Eight people died, scores badly injured as we fled

 A series of massive explosions in a suburb of Accra, Ghana, devastated an LPG gas depot and sparked a fireball which killed eight people, injured hundreds, razed two neighbouring petrol stations and terrorised thousands of residents. TIMOTHY BANKS chronicles his family’s flight from the ‘Atomic’ devastation.

DAYS HAVE PASSED since the gas depot and a petrol filling station exploded at Atomic Junction – one of Accra’s very own ‘spaghetti’ flyovers – and I’m finding it hard to relax. I am sitting on the balcony of my house, three hundred metres from the epicentre of the multiple explosions; our restaurant, right across the road from the now-flattened LPG depot, has only just been cleared to reopen. So I have time on my hands and a head full of bad memories.

A fuse suddenly blows on the street light opposite with a flash and a crackling of sparks that takes take me straight back to the previous terrifying Saturday night. . .

I saw shouting, fearful people fleeing down our street before I saw the orange glow flickering over the hill beyond the Lawyer’s House, accompanied by a shrieking hiss and plumes of black smoke.

“There’s a bomb!” shouted my neighbour. The hissing intensified.

My wife ran frantically around our compound, trying to work out what was happening. Suddenly, she ran up to our children’s bedroom. They were both still asleep. Nevertheless, she grabbed our sleeping baby to carry her from the room but I stopped her. She looked at me wild-eyed.

“PUT THE GIRL DOWN!” I barked. She did, clasping her hands over her ears and shaking her head in a gesture of fear. She wasn’t alone: we ran back outside in time to see the Lawyer’s Wife hurrying away from their compound. But the elderly Lawyer himself didn’t run. He stopped at the bottom of his driveway, breathing heavily and watched his wife disappear down the road.

“Look!” my wife cried. “We have to go! EVERYONE’S GOING!”

“No! We’re safer here in the house,” I countered. All the roads will be choked. Where would we…?”

BA-BOOM! 

The ground shook and we turned to see a massive mushroom cloud of fire.and smoke licking up into the sky from the explosion. The lights went out.

Without another word my Eleanor and I were running into the house and up the stairs. Moments later I was fleeing, shoeless, down the untarred street in darkness with my boy in my arms. He clung to me, neither motionless and unspeaking, just staring back the way we’d come.

As we rounded the corner I saw an orange glow reflected in his huge, unblinking eyes and I turned to see a ball of fire erupt behind us. People began to scream.

The fire rose and swelled so high in the sky, it seemed to be reaching out towards us. I realised that if there was another, bigger explosion, the flames would be on top of us and I would not be able to outrun them. I felt the heat on the back of my legs and neck. I feared we might die.

While I couldn’t see my wife and baby daughter I knew they must be ahead of us, somewhere among the seething crowd. Then I heard her calling me, leaning out of the back of my neighbour’s car. He was yelling my name, too. Reaching the car, I tumbled my son into the back seat. He lay motionless, eyes staring like a big doll.

My neighbour was shouting that he didn’t know where his wife was. A sudden flash of lightning lit up the road and there she was, climbing out of one of the fast-filling deep gullies next to the road. as the tropical rain began to fall.

It wasn’t long before we hit heavy traffic. Fire was still filling the sky behind us, all of us shouting at my neighbour to keep going, to push through the crowd. My in-laws in the nearby port city of Tema were calling our mobiles to ask if we were okay. I WhatsApped my father in England a hurried reassurance in case whatever had happened had been broadcast in the UK.

21.02 [Me] In case you see the news, there was just a huge explosion near our house. But we’re all together, safe. Driving away.
21.12 [Dad] More news ASAP please. Nothing yet on news feeds
21.14 [Me] I think one of the filling stations near the container blew up , also the place that sells LPG gas. Huge flaming mushroom clouds in the sky
21.16 [Dad] Keep driving. Stay safe. Love you all x
21.17 [Me] We left house after 2nd explosion. Now in Ade’s car heading for the hills
21.18 [Dad] Traffic moving? Heading for Tema or Chris’s place?
21.19 [Me] Neither. Both would take us past the blaze
21.20 [Dad] Understood. Kids frightened?
21:21 [Me] Actually they’re oddly calm. . .

As we drove further to safety we hit a district that still had power. In drinking spots and hair salons, TV screens were showing endless coverage of the horror we had fled.

At some point during the downpour the car broke down. We managed to flag a taxi but it wasn’t easy: tonight, taxi drivers – like everyone else – just wanted to get away rather than take our money.

We stayed the night in our neighbours’ auntie’s house in an eastern suburb, wondering if our own homes would still be intact upon our return. As for our business across the road from the explosion, we heard conflicting reports but our staff were unharmed. Slowly we built a full picture of the devastation, first from Dad via WhatsApp:

22.14 [Dad] Reports indicate many casualties but Ghana website myjoyonline.com cannot independently verify yet.
Eye-witnesses say explosion struck when a gas tanker was offloading its contents.
Hundreds of residents in and around Atomic Junction and a section of the main campus of the University of Ghana, have taken to their heels (like you!) Have updated mum [who was in Iceland on a Ramblers’ geology trip] Says she can’t imagine what you’re going through, sends love to all.
22.21 [Me] Thanks, dad

Later, on Sunday morning, we sat and watched the footage on CNN. Pictures of our neighbourhood on fire in a rolling news loop alongside a bushfire in California and an earthquake in Mexico. Then we headed home.

The taxi had to drop us half a mile from our house because of traffic restrictions. My bedraggled family walked home, me still barefoot since the night before. My feet were filthy and I longed for a shower to wash away the discomfort.

DEVASTATION. . . The scene across the road from our restaurant

In all, eight people were killed and hundreds badly injured. The canopy at the front of our restaurant melted in the blast but the girls on duty were unhurt, thank God. There is a piece of twisted metal, the size of a 4×4 fender, lying some way off. It was part of the gas tanker that blew up. It bounced off our roof and into the compound, looks like something that fell from space.

The place was inspected by officials assessing for compensation, then they told us not to reopen “just yet”. But what happens now? I keep thinking about what I might have done differently. How I might protect my family from such a random event in the future. The thoughts swim in my head but I have no solutions.

I believe we should have faith in the words of the president, Nana Akufo-Addo. He did not run for election recently on a platform of gas safety, but he must surely feel the pressure to act after eight high profile explosions in three years. There is clearly a problem, either with current legislation or its implementation.

Walking through the eerily quiet neighbourhood I suddenly feel closer to people with whom I previously was only on nodding terms. The cobbler shows me his burns, his face and torso purple with gentian violet. The knife sharpener’s machine is silent. He won’t risk the sparks for now but he meets my eye and shoots me a wry smile.

At the local drinking spot, Getty’s Corner, either the drinkers have stopped smoking or the smokers have stopped drinking. It seems there isn’t a lit cigarette in the whole of North Legon. The tro-tro (taxibus) station has relocated to a crowded alleyway away from the disaster site. The police still guard a cordoned-off area and control the traffic.

My mind, meanwhile , teems with theories and questions. What of the new LPG gas depot that was due to open soon on the other side of the Total filling station? That would mean a gas depot next to a filling station next to another gas depot, with another filling station across the road. Can that really happen in light of recent events?

We wait to see what happens next

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