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Church Obstructed Rescue, Lives Lost as Toll of S.Africans Killed in Nigeria Church Collapse Hits 84 - Officials

Church Obstructed Rescue, Lives Lost as Toll of S.Africans Killed in Nigeria Church Collapse Hits 84 - Officials

Johannesburg (AFP) - The number of South Africans known to have died in the collapse of a multi-storey megachurch in Lagos last week has risen to 84, Pretoria's high commissioner to Nigeria said Friday.


Rescue workers clear debris at the collapsed guesthouse of the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) at Ikotun in Lagos on September 17, 2014 (AFP Photo/Pius Utomi Ekpei)

"The number has risen from 67 to 84, with more bodies discovered on Thursday," Lulu Mnguni told AFP, adding that the toll could rise.  "The number of South Africans who were in the church might be higher, as we believe that some people organised the trip themselves without using travel agents," Mnguni said.


A multi-storey hotel linked to controversial preacher and televangelist TB Joshua collapsed on Friday, but it was Tuesday before South African President Jacob Zuma announced any South African fatalities.


State media reported in Zimbabwe Friday that a Zimbabwean man is among the more than 80 people killed when a hostel belonging to the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) collapsed in Nigeria last week.  According to the official Herald daily, Greenwich Ndanga, who was the Mashonaland West provincial chairperson of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had gone to Nigeria on church business when tragedy struck last Friday.


MDC spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora confirmed the death of Ndanga, who was also a pastor.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs could however not confirm or deny the death, with permanent secretary Joey Bimha saying he needed to confirm with the Zimbabwean embassy in Abuja first.  Hundreds of people were trapped when the building collapsed on September 12.


Mnguni said forensic tests were still to be conducted to verify the identities of the dead.  South Africa has sent a team of 10 disaster management personnel, including doctors to help in the search.  It is believed that there were 349 South Africans visiting the popular church at the time of the crash.  Some pilgrims have returned home, telling harrowing stories of their lucky escape, after being buried under concrete slabs.


Mnguni described some of the injuries to local media, including a woman who was "speared through the chest by a steel bar."


"The injury was so horrific but she refused to leave her friends trapped under the rubble," Mnguni told The Times newspaper.  "Somehow it missed all her vital organs and spine. She pulled it out herself," he said.


Some distraught family members of pilgrims have been waiting in vain in the arrivals hall at Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport, checking flights arriving from Lagos.  Thousands of South Africans often travel to Nigeria to see TB Joshua at his Synagogue Church of All Nations, some seeking healing from terminal illnesses such as cancer.


Dubbed "The Prophet" by fanatical followers who believe he can predict the future, Joshua is politically well connected in Nigeria and beyond, counting presidents and prime ministers among his flock. In a statement on Thursday, TB Joshua denied allegations that he was not cooperating and stuck to his theory that the building collapse was possibly caused by a low-flying airplane.


South Africa has played down accusations that the delay in responding was caused by the Nigerian authorities being slow to provide information. International Relations Minister Nkoana-Mashabane on Wednesday admitted that "working together with the Synagogue people has not been easy".


Rescue workers on the scene have complained that Joshua's staff at the Synagogue Church of All Nations impeded their work.  Church officials prevented rescuers from extricating victims at the site of a six-story building collapse, leading to a loss of lives, Nigeria's emergency agency said Friday.


Most victims were South African, according to the South African government, which said at least 67 South Africans died and 17 appear to be missing in the rubble of the six-story building that had a shopping mall on the ground floor and guest rooms above.


Ibrahim Farinloye, spokesman for the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency told The Associated Press that the building at televangelist T.B. Joshua's Synagogue, Church of All Nations, collapsed at 12:44 p.m. on Friday but rescuers did not get full access until after 5 p.m. on Sunday.


He said rescue workers were on the scene by 1:50 p.m. Friday and that as they were waiting, they were told that at least three people were trapped nearby. The rescuers saved them, Farinloye said. But church officials prevented rescuers from getting further access, he said.


"Some of us were even attacked (by church members). We wanted to ask the military to deploy to force access for us, but there were many foreigners at the church and we did not want to create an international incident," Farinloye said in a telephone interview.


Church members also were hostile to journalists and smashed at least one television camera.

T.B. Joshua could not immediately be reached for comment. At a televised service on Sunday, he urged his congregants not to be hostile to rescue workers and the media. In a tweet he said "Hard times may test me, they cannot destroy me. To withstand hard times, stand with Christ."


"Eighty bodies were recovered and 131 survivors were found by the time the rescue operation ended at 3:35 p.m. Thursday.  The last survivor was rescued from the debris on Tuesday, and had only a dislocated hand," Farinloye said.

He said rescuers lost the two or three critical hours immediately after a disaster when most lives are saved.


Farinloye said they only were allowed to carry out full rescue operations after Lagos state Gov. Babatunde Fashola met Sunday at the disaster site with Joshua, also called "The Prophet." According to a state government statement, Fashola told him: "What you need to understand now is that this place is now an accident scene, and so all your staff must leave this place. We need to take control of this place and let people who are trained to do this job do so."


South Africa flew a team into Lagos to help identify victims and console and help survivors. South African Foreign Affairs spokesman Clayson Monyela told the AP the process of identifying victims will be lengthy and might involve getting fingerprints and DNA from family members.


"I think there will have to be a further investigation into what happened and how the church responded, but for now our focus is on helping families identify bodies and see that the injured are attended to," Monyela said.