Thousands of Port Harcourt residents braced the odds on Thursday evening to pay their respect to Mr. Berepele Joe Blankson, the hero who tragically drowned after rescuing 12 passengers that were struggling to survive in the water after the boat they were travelling in capsized.
The people who trooped to the Kings Chapel, in the Old GRA area of Port Harcourt, where a Service of Songs was held in Blankson’s honour, were mostly those he did not come in contact with in his 38 years on earth. They, however, reasoned that he died a hero, and that they least they could do to show appreciation for the huge sacrifice he made was to be part of the evening’s programme, which was immediately followed by a candle light procession. Blankson, a husband and father of two, was travelling from Port Harcourt to Bakana, a riverine community in Degema Local Government Area, when the boat made a 360 degree turn in the air, and capsized in the process.
A survivor said that the accident happened in a split second, and that there was confusion the moment the boat operator lost control. Recalling the near-death experience, he said people were screaming “Jesus, Jesus and talking in their local dialects” as the more than 20 passengers struggled to remain afloat. It was in the midst of the confusion that Blankson took it upon himself to rescue as many passengers as he could. According to reports, he was on his way to rescue the 13th passenger when he too drowned.
While those that he rescued and a few others who managed to swim ashore, including his sister who was travelling with him were still praying that he rescues more passengers, their hope later vanished when he didn’t make it back. A family source told Saturday Telegraph that only the body of Blankson had so far been recovered while the remaining nine persons that lost their lives in the accident are yet to be found. The source also said that the boat driver had been arrested for recklessness and would be charged to court.The accident, and Blankson’s swift response has not only reignited the issue of safety on Rivers waterways, it has equally won him a strong followership across the state and beyond.
In the social media, there are countless posts lauding his bravery and urging youths across the country to be selfless and patriotic. At the Kings Chapel, some participants at the Service of Songs said that they tracked down the event’s date on Facebook, and decided to be part of it.
The crowd, made up of both young and old, and men and women from various professional backgrounds, filled the church and the road that leads to it. A man in his early 30s who blended easily among some friends and relatives of Blankson, said that he came all the way from Nchia Community in Eleme Local Government Area with three of his friends to “honour Blankson’s courage.” He said that he initially thought that the incident didn’t happen, because he could not just imagine a situation where a man would sacrifice his life for others.
He said: “Honestly, when we got here and saw people dressed in black, celebrating him, I told myself that I did not make any mistake coming all the way from Eleme. People like Blankson are difficult to come by in our society. It is always about self, loved ones and nothing else.
For me, I think he redefined sacrifice.” The officiating ministers, includ-ing The Rt. Rev. Ralph C. Ebirien (JP), started and ended the programme ahead of time in order for the crowd to be part of the candle light procession. It was in the early evening when Blankson’s wife (Mr. Mercy Joe Blankson) was led out of the church premises in tears that some among the crowd that had come to celebrate and honour Blankson took in the reality before their eyes.
With a wife and two children that need the presence of a father to nurture them to adulthood, their hero had left a void that no other man can fill. Mercy was short of words this particular evening, expressing her thoughts in the programme’s brochure. “…
Well the five years that we spent together was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Hugs and kisses.” But a few minutes earlier, she described her husband as “a loving and caring man, a very good father to our kids. He put people first, before him-self. He was selfless.” According to Mercy, his children have been asking for their father: “My son has been asking me about his dad.
If I’m talking to someone on the phone, he says ‘mummy is that my daddy? Mummy, can I see my dad?’ And my daughter has been crying because she knows something is wrong.” In her eulogy, Blankson’s elder sister, Mrs. Clara Yemi-Adeleke, described him as a man of peace.
“You loved peace and you were always ready to go the extra mile for people. You had a large heart, you loved people and were always playful, cheerful and fun to be with. I could always count on you. God has you in his arm, and we have you in our heart.”
The state government, which was represented by the Head of Service, Rufus Longjohn, described Blankson as a man who displayed uncommon bravery by sacrificing his life for others. He said: “The young man showed extraordinary gallantry and bravery. It is not how long that one lives but how well. One thousand years from now, if Jesus tarries, the young man will be remembered for his heroic deed.”
While the state government has promised to offer Blankson’s wife employment and an educational endowment for his two children, a move some describe as timely, some have called on the three tiers of government to partner in making Rivers waterways safer. Mercy is a graduate of Microbiology, while Blankson was a Marketing graduate from the Rivers State University of Science and Technology. The State Governor, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, announced the endowment when he received the family of the late hero at Government House.
He advised Mercy to put the money in a scheme that will best benefit the children and guarantee their future. He directed the chairman of Degema Local Government Council, Hon. Tony Philmoore, to collect Mercy’s credentials to perfect the employment offered to her. A marine expert, who lamented the recklessness of boat drivers operating in Rivers waterways, called for collaboration between boat unions and the state government on ways to regulate marine transport.
He decried situations where passengers don’t wear life jackets along some routes and some of the life jackets worn out and can’t withstand the pressure of keeping a drowning passenger afloat for up to one hour. He said: “It is quite appalling that most of the boats operating in our waterways don’t have lifebuoys that can keep at least four passengers afloat when there is a boat mishap.
At least, each boat that is on the water at every point in time must have at least four lifebuoys. With that alone, the driver is sure of making sure that 20 passengers that cannot swim can be rescued. “There are cases of boats being manned or operated by untrained hands who can’t read the weather and decide whether or not they should operate.”
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