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Ebeano Supermarket Fire: A curious mistake or willful act?

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I have watched with sympathy and attention, the CCTV images of how a 9-year-old girl started the fire that consumed billions of Naira at the Ebeano Supermarket. Each time I watched it, I had to ask myself, is this a mistake from the curiosity of a 9-year-old or could it be a willful act? I am sure that many are asking the same question.

As I ponder over it, my mind flashes back to 2 incidents. One was when I travelled to Ilorin, Kwara State, after my WAEC so many years ago. I got a job as a waiter in a restaurant. As someone coming from the village, I never saw a bell on the wall before. It was this bell that the clients would ring if they needed my or any of the restaurant’s staff attention.

One afternoon, out of curiosity, I pulled the little lever that would hit on the bell when any client rang for help. It felt like someone from behind pulled my right hand backwards. I looked back to see who that was and there was no one, that was when I knew that I had just been shocked by electricity. Happily enough, the jolt was minor and I made it out alive. That was after class five, at age 17+, not 9.

Again, I remember what happened to Esther, (not real name) in a New York public library in 1996. Esther had just relocated her family to NY from Kenya, after winning the American Visa Lottery for that year. To get her kids busy and ready for their new environment, Esther would take them to the public library to read and learn to use the computer. On one of those trips, her then 10-year-old daughter, picked the phone that was mounted on the wall of the library, close to the entrance and dialled 911 and hung up.

No one knew what she did. A couple of minutes later, the police and fire service besieged the library in their full regalia and readiness for action. Everyone, including the librarian and the library workers were surprised. The leader of the police team told the librarian that someone called 911 from the library and that was why the police were there. The librarian said no one did and began to ask his staff. As each staff answered in the negative, he yelled, “did anyone call 911?”

Esther’s daughter, innocent as she was, yelled back, “are they here?”

She was asked if and why she called 911. In response, she said that she wanted to know if 911 calls were real, noting that she thought it was a fluke. Who would blame her, she had just landed from a village in Kenya where there was probably no telephone then, or no nearby police station, or where the police was not responsive to emergency calls. For wasting the time of the police, the firefighters and causing panic, she was sentenced to 2 weeks of community service, as a punishment.

As you can see from the above 2 incidents, curiosity or curious mistakes do happen and oftentimes, they end up being costly. The 9-year-old, who lit the fire that engulfed Ebeano supermarket may have acted in innocent ignorance or made a curious mistake.

Risk management assessment of Ebeano supermarket

A few other things that could be picked up from the video clips is that there did not seem to be a proper risk management strategy in place in the supermarket. Why did it take the fire to blossom before a smoke detector was activated, if at all? A supermarket so large and so rich should have smoke detectors evenly distributed in such a way that smoke alarms can go off as soon as possible.

Secondly, why was it possible for the kid to light the cooker? For her to be able to do that meant that the gas line that supplied gas to the cooker was live. If that is true, why would a gas cooker on display be attached to a gas line or gas cylinder with gas in it?

A closer look indicated that the location where the fire started was filled with lighters. This is poor risk management. Those gas lighters have the tendency to explode when exposed to extreme heat much more when there is a fire within. The presence of those lighters, no doubt exacerbated the fire incident. While this is not pointing to contributory negligence, it calls for proper risk management by store owners and others because curious mistakes do happen and they can be costly.

Public and private places are fitted with CCTVs, but of what use is the CCTV if they are not manned or constantly surveilled? If the CCTV was being manned, it would have been easy to see the fire early enough before it blossomed and caused so much damage.

Lesson Learned

While this incident is heartbreaking, it provides a teachable moment for other supermarket owners on risk management. In most stores in the US, inflammable articles are usually sold outside in a place called garden aisles. Notices should be placed in visible areas warning parents not to leave their underage kids unattended.

Nigeria is a country with a high unemployment rate, storemen should be hired to roam around stores making sure that customers not only get the help they need but that the store and everyone in it operates and behaves in a civil and safe manner. That is the practice in stores like Home Depot, Walmart, TJ Max and lots more.

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