YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Following the spectacular July 23 collapse of a building that killed dozens of people in Cameroon’s economic capital of Douala, the local archbishop has called the incident a “tragedy … very difficult to bear.”
Archbishop Samuel Kleda of Douala told journalists July 25 that “what happened is a tragedy. Seeing entire families perish overnight is very difficult to bear.”
In the incident, a four-story building situated in the Ndogbong neighborhood in Douala collapsed onto another one-story residential apartment building killing 39 people, according to the Mayor Roger Mbassa Ndine.
Kleda made a visit to the disaster site July 25, saying it was important that he do so “as the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Douala … and to pray with all those who are affected.”
“I prayed for the victims and extended my solidarity to their families, for God to give them the necessary comfort to overcome this shock,” Kleda said.
Survivors recounted chilling stories of their individual and collective losses.
Kejang Henry, a resident of the neighborhood, told Crux that “four kids from the same family perished in the crash.” He said the kids had come for the holidays. He said his wife’s seamstress also died, and a friend with whom he shared a drink on Sunday evening died when the house collapsed later that night.
Another resident, Cyrille Ateba, told Crux that he hadn’t seen his wife and children.
“My wife and two kids were in the house when the building collapsed. I have gone to all the hospitals and I have not seen any of them,” he said.
Alain Tchombé lost his cousin in the tragedy.
“I heard the news at around 4:30 a.m., when a friend called to tell me that there was a little boy named Tchombé Roméo. I lost my cousin, who was in Form 5 [meaning he was roughly nine or ten]. The body was found and taken to Deïdo hospital,” he said.
Another resident said he had been out drinking when the house gave way. He said a photographer who was also a resident of the building got an emergency call to shoot a wedding ceremony.
“He rushed out for the shoot and when he got back, the building was gone,” the resident told Crux. “That is how this photographer was saved,” he explained.
Kleda stressed that words often aren’t of great consolation when faced with such enormous loss.
“In such situations, it is very difficult to address those affected,” he said. “The only thing we could do is pray with them and ask them to put their trust in God.”
The 64-year prelate said he also “prayed with those in the hospital for God to grant them healing.”
Douala’s City Council will provide coffins to the families of those who lost loved ones, and pledged support to survivors and affected families “to start rebuilding their broken lives.”
Public authorities have blamed the collapsed building on a lack of respect for building norms. On a visit to the scene, the country’s Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Celestine Ketcha Courtes, said she was “very sorry that we lost people due to non-observation of building documents and non-respect of urbanization. For this, I am here to extend the condolences of the government and tell the grieving families and populations that we are together.”
Cameroon’s longtime President, Paul Biya, has ordered an investigation to ascertain the cause of the tragedy. Ketcha Courtes has instructed local government officials to ensure that everybody constructing a house acquires a building permit, and respects the town planning standards.
Mbassa Ndine, the mayor, told journalists that in line with those instructions, houses constructed without building permits, or on risky zones such as slopes and marshy areas will be demolished in the days ahead.
“This administrative tolerance (a system wherein the government allowed people to build without respecting norms because they are too poor to pay for the procedures) has to stop. A life lost can’t be rebuilt,” he said.
Kleda said that he plans to organize a Holy Mass in honor of the victims of the collapsed building in the days ahead.
“We plan to organize a Eucharistic Celebration in future to pray for the victims and their families. We will communicate on that at the appropriate time,” he said.