Nigeria collapse: SA survivors return home

67 South Africans were killed in a church building collapse in Lagos, Nigeria.

Families of South Africans who attended a church in Nigeria arrive at OR Tambo International Airport on 17 September 2014. Picture: Govan Whittles/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - It's hoped today will bring clarity on a building collapse disaster in Nigeria which has claimed the lives of 67 South Africans and which has been described by President Jacob Zuma as a "heart breaking tragedy".

News of the South Africans being crushed to death on Friday emerged only late last night.

The building is a guest house for a popular church run by preacher TB Joshua which attracts thousands of pilgrims from other countries.

Scores of South Africans who travelled to Nigeria to attend the church service and who escaped Friday's catastrophic collapse, have told Eyewitness News they feel blessed to be alive.

Members of the Emmanuel Church in South Africa landed at OR Tambo International Airport just after 5am this morning.

Clad in purple T-shirts with the church slogan, one of the passengers on the early morning flight says he feels blessed to be able to come home after the tragedy.

Family members of people who attended the church have also started to arrive, hoping to get more information about their missing relatives.

A South African doctor, who was in Nigeria on unrelated business, was one of the first medical personnel on the scene.

She has met with the South African ambassador in Nigeria and is due to meet with officials from the Department of International Relations & Cooperation (Dirco) today.

Returning South Africans are consoling each other in the international arrivals terminal.

Some are still going through compulsory health checks for people who travelled to West Africa.

Cape Town doctor Thandeka Mayekiso was in the building next to the one that collapsed and says she feels lucky to be alive.

It's understood the collapse happened around lunch time, when many of the church goers were having lunch at another venue.

Another group of Emmanuel Church members in South Africa are due to land tomorrow.

VICTIM'S FAMILY DISTRAUGHT

Patrick Matsila says his family has been left distraught by the death of his brother Thomas, a 44-year-old believer from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape.

Matsila says his brother and his sister-in-law went to Nigeria with their fellow church members last week.

He says his brother was killed because he went into the building just minutes before it collapsed.

"My sister-in-law was told that my brother was also in that accident after he went into the building to get change, that's when it collapsed."

The Matsila family says they are now awaiting an update from government on when his brother's body will be brought home.

The Presidency's Mac Maharaj says they understand that a group of about 300 people went to the church last week, not all of them are South African but they are still trying to get figures.

"Our primary focus is to help rescue the bodies and help those who are still alive, attend to those injured, identify the bodies and help the loved ones overcome this period of tremendous grief."

At the same time, Rescue South Africa (Rescue SA) says it's on standby to travel to Nigeria to assist with rescue efforts.

Rescue SA's Ian Scher says they are ready to go and are waiting for diplomatic clearance.

"We were placed on standby on Sunday by Dirco. As I understand it, our ambassador offered the Nigerian government our assistance. Until such time as the request comes through, we're unable to put a team together to go. We're still on standby."

COMMUNICATION ISSUES

Questions are also being asked this morning about why the news that so many South Africans were caught up in the collapse took so long to reach the nation.

There have been major communication challenges with the officials in Nigeria.

Yesterday, Dirco said it was looking for about five South Africans who were believed to be at the church that day.

And then late last night the Presidency confirmed 67 South Africans were killed.

The department says their team there hasn't received cooperation from the church.

South Africa's High Commissioner to Nigeria, Lulu Louis Mnguni, also says it's been difficult to get information.

It's believed that there are several South Africans still unaccounted for.

The department has made it clear that communication has been a problem.

WHO IS TB JOSHUA?

Mystery still surrounds the Synagogue Church of All Nations in the Ikotun district of Lagos.

TV evangelist Joshua, known as the 'prophet', who numbers former Malawian President Joyce Banda among his disciples, blames foul play.

Rescuers attribute the crash to substandard obstruction.

They're concentrating on the search of the restaurant of a guest house attached to the church, where most of the victims have thus far been found.

Eyewitness News understands Joshua has a wide following and there are reports that hundreds of South Africans were attending his church services.

Joshua is known as a charismatic church leader who claims to possess healing powers and the ability to prophesise major events.

The TV evangelist has a massive following in South Africa and South Africans are known to flock to his church throughout the year.

In August last year, Economic Freedom Fighters' (EFF) leader Julius Malema visited the Nigerian pastor with his new party's leadership.

Though not much is known about the building collapse, Joshua has linked the incident to a suspicious aircraft, apparently seen in the area at the time.

But this has been ruled out by rescue workers so far.

The agent who organised the trip for the 67 South Africans has not yet been willing to comment.

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