Children among 31 killed in stampede at church fair in Nigeria

A stampede Saturday at a religious charity event in southern Nigeria left 31 dead and seven injured, police told The Associated Press, a shocking development for a program that aimed to offer hope to the needy. A witness said the dead included a pregnant woman and numerous children.

According to Grace Iringe-Koko, a police spokeswoman, the stampede at the event organized by the Pentecostal Kings Assembly Church in Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State, involved people who came to a program annual ‘Shop for Free’ charity.

Such occurrences are common in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, where more than 80 million people live in poverty, according to government statistics.

Saturday’s charity program was due to start at 9 a.m., but dozens arrived as early as 5 a.m. to secure their place in the queue, Iringe-Koko said. Somehow the locked door opened, creating a stampede, she said.

Godwin Tepikor of Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency said first responders were able to evacuate the bodies of those trampled to death and bring them to the morgue. Security forces cordoned off the area.

Dozens of locals then swarmed the scene, mourning the dead and offering all possible help to rescuers. Doctors and paramedics treated some of the injured as they lay in the open field. Videos from the scene showed the clothes, shoes and other items for the beneficiaries.

A witness who identified himself only as Daniel said “there were so many children” among the dead. Five of the children who died were siblings, he told the AP, adding that a pregnant woman was also killed.

Some church members were attacked and injured by relatives of the victims after the stampede, according to witness Christopher Eze. The church declined to comment on the situation.

The police spokeswoman said the seven injured were “responding to treatment”.

The “Shop for Free” event has been suspended while authorities investigate how the stampede happened.

Nigeria has seen similar jostling in the past.

Twenty-four people died during a crowded religious gathering in southern Anambra state in 2013, and at least 16 were killed in 2014 when a crowd spiraled out of control during a selection for government jobs in the national capital, Abuja.

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Jerry B. Hatch