- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2002

LAGOS, Nigeria Onlookers wept and wailed as bodies were pulled out of a canal in Nigeria's largest city yesterday after hundreds drowned while trying to flee explosions at an army weapons depot.
Many victims apparently didn't realize how deep the water was and drowned when they ran and drove vehicles into the Oke Afa drainage canal in Lagos, witnesses said. They were fleeing explosions at the city's Ikeja military base, which propelled shrapnel for miles Sunday night.
Rescue volunteer Ben Nwachukwu said more than 200 bodies were pulled from one part of the canal. Other volunteers said the death toll could be much higher, but getting an accurate count was difficult in part because the current was carrying bodies downstream. Authorities issued no official death count.
[Reuters news agency said more than 500 bodies were retrieved from canals, quoting soldiers and rescue workers who said they had pulled between 200 and 300 bodies from the Pako canal alone.]
[Agence France-Press said state-run Radio Nigeria broke into its evening broadcasts to announce a confirmed death toll of more than 600. The agency said hospital sources and witnesses earlier had put the number at well over 580, most of them children.]
Many children were separated from their families during Sunday night's panic, said Lagos State Police Commissioner Mike Okiro. He said some children were being cared for at police stations until their families could be located.
Army spokesman Col. Felix Chukwumah said the explosions began when a fire spread to the depot, which was surrounded by crowded slums and working-class neighborhoods. He did not know how the fire started, but a police officer said Sunday it began at a nearby gas station.
State and military officials said the fire was accidental and not an indication of military unrest. Dozens of blasts sent fireballs towering over this city of 12 million and shattered windows six miles away at the international airport.
Rescue workers and volunteers in canoes used long poles to search for corpses in the canal in the northern neighborhood of Isolo, five miles from the weapons depot.

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