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Surviving plane crash helped me discover my life’s purpose – Clergyman

Clergyman and life coach, Pastor Peter Onuka, alongside seven others survived a plane crash that claimed 98 other lives on October 29, 2006. Sixteen years after, Onuka tells GODFREY GEORGE he always looks back with gratitude

You were involved in a plane crash on October 29, 2006 but you survived. How did that day begin for you?

The day started quite normally for me. If there was anything, it would be that it rained that day. I had to go to the airport because I had a journey to Sokoto from Lagos. The flight took off from Lagos that morning at around 7.30am or so, even with the rain and we landed in Abuja first and were to move to Sokoto from there. It was a Sunday morning. Some passengers got off at the Abuja airport and some new ones, including the then Sultan of Sokoto, (the late Muhammadu) Maccido, and his entourage,came onboard.

It was a rainy Sunday and the weather wasn’t at its best, so we were delayed for a while, waiting for the weather to clear up a bit. The pilot then came to take off. There was a signal from the control room, and he was asked to wait some more. We were already set to go but we had to wait for about 30 extra minutes.

What time was this?

This should be around 9 or 9.30am or thereabouts.

When did your flight eventually take off?

After the 30-minute wait, the flight was cleared to take off. It was a Boeing 737, operated by ADC Airlines. We were about 100 passengers and five crew members, I learnt. When we finally took off, I think the wind was against us. The weather was turbulent. So, the plane began to struggle. There was a bit of struggle here and there.

How many minutes into your flight did this turbulence start?

It was less than a minute. It was while taking off that the turbulence started raging. The pilots were trying to do their best to weather the storm. We kept trying to go but, of course, it was bumpy. Everyone was already scared and had begun to make noise. I was travelling quite a lot at that time so I was familiar with turbulent situations like that, so I wasn’t really panicking. I wasn’t really thinking about it at that time, because, for me, I had seen cases that were worse than that in my many journeys and the plane still managed to settle mid-air. So, in this case, it was not even up to 10 minutes into taking off, and suddenly, there was a sharp descent. It was a very sharp descent so I closed my eyes at that point and the next thing was that we landed in a bush and instantly the plane went up and came down the second time and split into two halves at the wings section. The front part, where the tyres are, kept going till it hit a big tree which finally halted it. Myself and others who survived were on the second part of the plane – the tail end. Remember, the plane is divided into two halves from the wings. So, we at the tail end of the plane were the only survivors. Everyone on the front end didn’t make it.

After a while, smoke started coming up as a result of electrical issues and all those stuffs. If help came almost immediately, I strongly believe that a lot more people would have survived. People didn’t die instantly because they were in pain and couldn’t get up instantly. I, too, couldn’t get up instantly.

Was there an explosion?

Yes, there was, and it was the explosion that later took place that later killed people. On my side, there was a lady, Esther, who was an acquaintance, who was able to get up. There was another friend of hers whose name was also Esther, who also got up. When they both got up, they were trying to help people out of their seats and out of the scene. The three daughters of the then Kogi State Governor, (the late) Ibrahim Idris, were also on board. One of his daughters was able to get up,  and she was calling for help for her sisters. Esther, who knew me, called me to get up, but I couldn’t immediately get up. She went out and was shouting for help. At this stage, the villagers were already coming around but they were afraid. She encouraged them to help. They (villagers) came in and helped me and the ex-governor’s daughters and one other guy.

How many people were they able to rescue?

In total, I think eight of us survived the crash; 96 or so didn’t make it.

Were you taken to the hospital immediately?

When we came out, I told the villagers and everyone else that we should go far from the plane, because it would likely explode. So, we moved away. Within some minutes, it exploded and that was what actually killed virtually everyone who was not rescued at that time. It took about one hour or thereabouts before help came from the airport or so.

While the turbulence was on, did you, for the tiniest bit, think the plane was going to crash?

At the very moment when the plane was acting up, I wasn’t thinking of a crash at all. It was far away from my mind. One of the reasons, as I said, was that I had travelled a lot, so it wasn’t anything strange to me. To be honest, in my mind, I remember looking at Esther, who was three seats away from me as she grabbed the arm of her seat and she was in tears. I was smiling inwardly, thinking when everything got normal, I would make jest of her. Those were the thoughts in my mind. It was when the plane made a sharp descent that the seriousness of the situation hit me. Even at that time, when I closed my eyes, I didn’t think we were crashing. I just felt the plane would, somehow, balance in the air. I didn’t think the pilot was out of control or anything. It was when we landed that I knew we had a serious problem on our hands. Fortunately, I think a week earlier, I had training on what to do if a plane crashed. When the crash happened, the knowledge I garnered from the training kicked in.

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At the time when the plane eventually crashed and you were just seated, unable to move; did it ever cross your mind that you might not make it?

To really think about it, at that time, I wouldn’t say yes. This is because the gravity of the event might not have dawned on me at that time. I remember myself and my friends, Mr Oke and Mr Adewale, had an argument two weeks or so before the crash. We were seated on the corridor and a plane flew over our roof, and Oke said, “Peter, do you know this plane can just fall down now and crash?” I told him that it was impossible for a plane to just fall down like that and crash. He kept arguing with me and said, “Peter, if you were inside that plane now as it is crashing, what will you do?” I told him that if I was inside, the plane would not crash. We argued for a while and he kept insisting that my presence would change nothing. It was immediately after the event when I was in the hospital that Adewale then called to remind me of that discussion and told me that it must have been my firm resolve to live that worked for me. It was later when I got to know the number of people that died that I realised the magnitude of what God did for me. My entire thought when I was right there seated after the crash was, “I hope my spinal cord is okay.” This was because I couldn’t move. But saying I couldn’t make, it never crossed my mind at all. I could have been one of those who died – condolences to their families – but for God’s goodness and mercy, I was not consumed. He saved me from the disaster.

How long did you stay in the hospital?

When the airport authorities came in, they took the survivors to the hospital. I was taken to the National Hospital, Abuja because the plane hadn’t even left Abuja when it crashed. I was there for like four days. A lot of tests were done and they (doctors) realised nothing really happened to me. My spinal cord was okay; just a little impact on my spine, which wasn’t anything so bad. There was a bit of burn on my hands; very little. It was not something serious. It was just a first-degree burn. It must have been as a result of the heat from the crash, not fire.

How long did it take for you to recover fully?

After the four days at the National Hospital, my parents came to pick me and they flew me back to Lagos and then to Ibadan where they were based to continue treatment. When they took me home, all we were treating was the impact on my ankle region, although I could still walk. That was the only thing. I wouldn’t really say I was hurt.

How old were you at the time this happened?

I was 28 years old then.

Were you married then?

No, I wasn’t.

How does it feel to be alive to celebrate the 16th anniversary of your survival from such an incident?

Hmmm! At the juncture, when it happened, I knew I was to do the work of ministry but, somehow, I had some struggle. My thought was for me to make money for a while. So, it was when the crash happened and I survived that I had to come to my real self, realising that God had a plan for me to serve Him. It was an act of miracle. I was scheduled for that flight from my office, and among everyone that was scheduled, I was the only one who showed up. Everyone cancelled at the last minute, mostly, because it was a Sunday and they had other engagements. I knew God’s hands were in it. Whenever I look back at the incident and see that I am complete and whole, it just makes me bless the name of God even more. It is an eternal gratitude to God. I have heard of people who didn’t even go through half of what I went through and they are struggling to live but here I am. Gratitude is all I feel! It has made me focus more on why I am here on earth.

When it was time for you to get married, did you tell your wife about the incident?

Of course, I told her.

How did she feel?

She had heard of it from my pastor because we attended the same church. I only had to give flesh to it when she enquired some more. It is a strong point in my life, and no matter what I face in life, it just makes me keep going. I was not praying when this thing happened. I didn’t even know I was headed for a crash. So, at this time, I tell myself, “If I wasn’t praying and God saved me then when I call on him, He will answer me and save me.”

After that experience, do you have fears of flying now?

At that first instance, flying back to Lagos from Abuja was a huge problem. I didn’t want to get on the plane. It was like the memories were still fresh in my mind. The first two times I had to fly, it was a struggle. But after a while, I had to let go of the fear because, as it is now, airplanes are the safest means of transportation, and there was no way I was going to let one event define my life. However, when I get on a plane and it is about to take off, the memory comes in a flash and I just try to take my mind off it.

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