On December 10, 2005, a Sosoliso Airlines DC-9 aircraft crashed in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, killing 127 passengers. Sixty of those killed were students of Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja, Nigeria. This reflection was written shortly after the event.
We have suffered an enormous tragedy at Loyola Jesuit College: the death of 60 of our children in the plane crash on Dec. 10. Many of the parents and brothers and sisters of the children were at the airport hoping to welcome the children home for the Christmas holidays. Their pain must be doubled. Only one student survived, and she is receiving treatment in South Africa.
How does one react to this tragedy? Can one make any sense of it? Why might God (who did not cause this) allow this to happen? We search for answers even as we grieve. Along with many of the grieving families in Port Harcourt, I sense a powerful movement beginning. It is a movement from grief through determination to hope.
Hope Reborn in the Field of Dreams
On April 1, 1995, the ceremonial beginning of work on the foundation took place at the future site of Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja, Nigeria. There were no buildings, only the beginnings of roads, and construction equipment. As the Honorable Walter Carrington, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, surveyed the terrain, he uttered powerful and prophetic words. Ambassador Carrington spoke of a “field of dreams,” imagining what a wonderful educational institution would soon be in place. He was familiar with Jesuit education and knew that Loyola Jesuit College could become a center of excellence in secondary education.
The college is now in its 10th year. For the past three years it has posted the best results in national examinations taken in all schools in Nigeria. Its graduates are enrolled in universities in Nigeria and Ghana, the United Kingdom and in the United States. Several of these students have received scholarships.
In 1996, the opening year, fewer than 500 students took the entrance exam; 100 were accepted. In April 2005, over 2,300 took the entrance exam and 120 were accepted, on merit alone, students at the top of their classes in many of the best primary schools throughout Nigeria.
The World Beyond
And yet Ambassador Carrington expressed one major concern. He pondered what would happen when the students of Loyola Jesuit College left behind the beautiful campus. How would Nigeria receive them? What kind of world would they enter? “What happens,”he asked, “when they go beyond these confines? Will the society be nurturing and accepting of the values they learn here?” As he looked beyond the horizon of the future campus, he admitted that beyond the “field of dreams,” the vision was much hazier.
Now we see what can happen when students leave our beautiful campus. The tragic crash is a terrifying answer to the questions of the U.S. ambassador. It is a terrible indictment of many aspects of life and systems in Nigeria. On that Saturday morning, the children were rejoicing. The term had ended. Christmas carols were sung the night before during a candlelight procession. The children would travel to be with their families for the Christmas holidays. But instead of a safe flight to Port Harcourt, their plane missed the runway, hit a culvert and scattered its precious human cargo over a distance of 1,000 meters. Over 100 passengers died, including 60 of our students.
This happened in one terrible part of the world of Nigeria to which these children returned. It is a world where an accurate weather report and better communications might well have warned the pilot not to land. It is a world where there may have been a mechanical failure on the plane. There may even have been pilot error. Airport lights and electricity might have better guided the pilot in his efforts to land. We are not sure, but something went terribly wrong.
The immediate reaction to the crash was another indicator of the trouble with the world which our children wished to enter. “No water, no water!” I heard several of the classmates of these deceased children say this publicly, at a gathering of families and students. “My classmates burned to death because there was no water!” No water—in Rivers State, where water is abundant—to extinguish the fire.
Emergency services were also slow to arrive. Many of the bodies of the children were not badly burnt. They were still in their red, yellow, green or blue uniforms, with little or no physical damage. Doctors say they died of suffocation. No ambulances arrived. It is reported that a truck was used to carry the bodies of the injured and the dead together. This might well have led to the avoidable death of some of those seriously injured. This is the world into which these children returned.
How prophetic were the words of Ambassador Carrington 10 years ago! Among the 60 students who died were some of the best and brightest. One planned to be an aeronautical engineer. One planned to be a doctor. Another first-year student wrote a beautiful poem to her mother three weeks earlier, explaining how difficult it was to get into the school, but now that she was there, it was a rose to her, it was paradise on earth.
Other students and teachers remarked that the students on the plane were among the best of their classes. And each of the 24 classes at the college suffered at least one death: one-tenth of the student body gone. One set of parents lost all three children, their only children. Another mother and father lost two children, whose bodies were never positively identified. Each of the children had a story to be told, but no longer a life in which to tell it.
Determination Leading to Hope
And yet! There is determination leading to hope. This was the major theme of the remarks of Ambassador Carrington at the foundation-laying ceremony. That day, he said, was “a wonderful day to see hope reborn.” Determination leading to hope came through time and again as I tried to console the grieving parents I later visited in Port Harcourt.
They, in turn, reached out and tried to console me. They explained that while they had lost one, two or three children, I, as president of the school, and all the staff had lost 60. I saw unimaginably deep faith in those who suffered the loss of their children. I tried to tell the parents that they had done the best for their children, and that we at the school were also trying to do the best for them. But we all saw clearly that the systems, the aviation industry and the nation had let us down. The world into which the children returned was not safe—it could have been a road accident or armed robbers, but this time it was a plane crash.
What emerged was the conviction that this must not happen again. We owe it to the nation, and to these 60 innocent children, that this not happen again. These children cannot have died in vain. In those who suffered the loss of their children, and in all the Loyola Jesuit College parents, determination and hope were growing. We began to see that it is our responsibility. We, the living, must ensure this.
We believed that these children, in another 10 or 20 years, would have been the future leaders of the Nigeria we want and hope for. But this was not to be. We, the living, now have the responsibility to bring about what these children studied and died for: to be what all students in Jesuit schools throughout the world are called to be, “men and women for others.”
I quickly began to see this determination and hope in the grieving parents, who reached out to other parents, trying to keep hope alive. One mother who lost two of her three children visited other families and attended several funerals. She led the prayers and singing while seven of the children were interred at a mass burial in the cemetery. One father, who lost his two children in the crash, was scheduled to be the main organizer of our annual sports day in a few months. He said he would still do it. Several parents explained that their younger children would study harder than ever to do well on the entrance exam to Loyola. A grieving mother who lost her daughter reached out at the end of the service and asked that a special collection be taken up to assist another student who is facing surgery.
We had already started planning for our school’s 10th anniversary. In our visits to the bereaved, we continually received confirmation that our decision to situate the school at the center of Nigeria, at the new capital Abuja, was the right one. We wanted to draw students from all over Nigeria, students from all ethnic and all religious traditions to come together, to bond together, to show that all Nigerians can live, study and work together. This dream remains stronger than ever. Now we must assure that transportation systems allow our school to fulfill its dream and its mission.
We had planned to construct two additional buildings, one of which will most likely now be named Memorial Hall, to honor the memory of the 60 students. While these buildings are still needed, the real celebration of our 10th anniversary now must shift its focus to the building of a better, safer Nigeria. If the avoidable death of 60 of the best, of the future of Nigeria, does not touch the hearts of those in authority, then nothing will. Concerned mothers, including many parents of students, have begun protests in Lagos and Abuja, demanding changes in aviation, education and health care systems. Mothers dressed in black, mourning the loss of children, even had to endure tear gas on the streets of Lagos. In biblical terms, we see the death of these children as the sacrifice of the innocents, in order that new life, a new Nigeria might emerge.
It is not only the aviation sector that needs cleansing. It is all transportation systems in our country. Our students should be able to leave our peaceful campus and travel in safety, in security, on good roads, or by air or rail to any corner of Nigeria. The education sector should be providing quality education at all levels in all towns and villages of Nigeria. The health sector must be able to provide emergency services in a time of crisis, as well as affordable health care for all citizens.
Keep the Dream Alive
A few weeks later, 557 students, rather than 617, returned to Loyola. With the help of professional counselors, we have been planning how best to begin anew, with determination and hope. Having heard some of the classmates of those who died speak and give witness to how they feel, I am confident that we will manage. We follow not only the dream of Loyola Jesuit College, with its motto, “Service of God and Others,” situated on the field of dreams as Ambassador Carrington described it, but the dream of a better, safer Nigeria. We owe this to the children who have died. This will be our way to forge ahead and begin to make sense of this tragedy.