How sliding gate crushed my three-year-old daughter to death – Mother

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Calm, smart and beautiful were three words Mrs Amarachi Oku used to describe her three-year-old daughter, Ihuomachukwu, whose life was cut short after she was crushed by a sliding gate. Years on, the grief is still fresh in her heart.

Mrs Oku had moved to Johannesburg, the South African capital with her husband and three kids a few years after their marriage. The late Ihuoma was her second child; her first daughter, who, according to her, was everything like her. She was just three years and four months old when she died.

“Her voice sounded exactly like mine, and we looked very alike. She also has a calm demeanour. But, she was also very attached to her father. They would play together, sing together and even sleep together. It was such a beautiful bond to watch.

“Her dying was the last thing I saw coming. It was too sudden. She was not sick. It still feels like a dream,” she said.

A few weeks before the incident, she had got a call from a distant cousin based in South Africa whose husband based in Nigeria had just been kidnapped.

It was a troubling period for her, as, according to her, the Nigerian community in South Africa was very close-knit and bore one another’s burdens.

So, her husband begged her to take their three kids to go stay with the wife of the victim of the kidnapping while they tried to raise the ransom money so the abducted man would be released.

She packed her bags and off she went. Her husband dropped them off. After a few weeks, Mrs Oku said the ransom money was paid and the abducted victim was to return to South Africa to be with his family. Consequently, they had to leave.

“It was not our intention to go at the time we did. We wanted to stay to see Uncle (abducted victim) and be with his wife who was always crying because he was away. But, surprisingly, she (wife) said she was fine and needed to be on her own.

“She didn’t have to be express in what she said. She wanted us out of her house. I was even trying to prevail on her, stressing that she needed moral support till her husband’s return, but she was sure she could do it on her own. So, I called my husband and told her that our work there was done and he said he would come pick us up. That day was October 16, 2015. I cannot forget,” she said.

The 38-year-old Imo State indigene said as she was packing her clothes and those of her three kids, the now-late Ihuoma was with her.

After folding a shirt or skirt, she would give it to Ihuoma who would put it in the box and press it in. It went on for minutes. She also noted that the kids were excited when she told them their father was coming to pick them up.

“Ihuoma particularly did not let me rest. She was jumping all over the house. So, when I told her to join me in packing up, she didn’t even hesitate. She was really glad she was going to be with her father again. They had such a close bond,” she added.

In the house, apart from Mrs Oku and her three kids were three other adult relatives who had, on hearing the news of the abducted man’s release, come to celebrate with his wife.

Pain, despair

After a few minutes, Mrs Oku’s husband called her on the phone, telling her that he was minutes away. She told Ihuoma and her excitement grew. Once she heard her father honking, Ihuoma ran out to welcome him. Her older brother who was two years older than her also ran to welcome his father.

She said, “We didn’t necessarily allow our kids to open the gate but because two adults were there, they must have felt it was safe. It was a rolling gate and it was in Johannesburg. My son was in front, and my daughter was behind.”

Ihuoma and her brother pulled the sliding gate and as the gate opened, their father drove in. Ihuoma then, in excitement, pushed the gate back and it got to the last point, left the railings and fell on her, smashing her face flat.

Her brother escaped by the whiskers. He stood there transfixed. He didn’t understand what had happened.

“It was my husband’s scream that jerked me up from the bed I was, arranging and packing.

“The other adults there helped to lift the gate and wedged it against the wall and my husband lifted Ihuoma and was pacing about, in anguish. He didn’t know what to do.

“When I got outside, I saw my daughter with him, lifeless. There was blood all over him, gushing down. My daughter had been flattened by the gate just because she went to welcome her father,” she said fighting tears.

Still speechless, Mrs Oku said she grabbed her daughter from her husband and got into his car, ordering him to drive them to any hospital nearby.

She was screaming, too, and Ihuoma was still bleeding.

“We got into the car and I told him to drive to any hospital. We needed to save our child, no matter what. After all, we were supposed to be in a developed country. My husband was driving so recklessly and I knew that there was no way he was going to successfully drive us to the hospital without getting us killed.

“So, the family friend we had come to see brought out her car and we joined her. My son was also in the car. I also brought my other daughter who was just one year a few months and we drove to a hospital. My husband was driving behind me.

“We got to one of the private hospital in Johannesburg and the nurses took our child in,” she said.

When they got in and laid Ihuoma on a bed, Mrs Oku said the nurses wondered what the problem was. Ihuoma looked just fine. Save for her eyes that were closed and parts of her body covered in blood, there were no physical injuries on her.

“Where is the wound? Who is sick? She looks good,” she recalled them telling her.

She was still in shock and didn’t know what to say to them. Seeing that the matter may be more serious than they had envisaged, the nurses ran to call a paediatrician who came and checked to see that Ihuoma still had a pulse.

He also was wondering why her eyes were not opened only for him to turn her head to see that her brain and every other thing inside her head had come out from the impact of the gate.

“He simply said, ‘Sorry, Ma. There is nothing we can do.’ He also said that even if they had to treat her, she was going to be a vegetable and they just told us that they had lost her.

“I froze. My own life flashed before my eyes. I remembered how my girl was just lively that afternoon, jumping around the house, expecting her father. Death in such a gruesome way was the last thing I expected for my three-year-old.

“The abducted man whose wife we went to comfort has been released from the kidnapper’s den but I left their home without my daughter.

“She was just too young to die. Even as I tell this story to you today (Tuesday), I am still in shock. Something in me still feels she is still here with me,” Amarachi added.

‘My daughter, my daughter’

After the doctor broke the sad news of their daughter’s situation, Mrs Oku wondered where her husband was. The last thing she remembered was that he was driving right behind them. But, he was not at the hospital.

She began to panic. She called his phone line but it was not connecting. He was not answering the other line as well. She had to call a family friend who had ridden with him in that car to ask about her husband’s whereabouts, and the friend said he was accosted by estate security personnel who tagged him a murderer.

She said, “Apparently, the people at the estate when they heard the scream, had called the estate security, who accosted my husband who was in a pool of blood.

“They said all he was saying was, ‘My daughter! My daughter!’ But they didn’t believe him. They almost shot my husband thinking that he was a criminal. They even shot the tyres of his car so that he would not ‘escape’.

“I have lost my child and I was on the verge of losing my husband.”

Unending sorrow

The pain for Mrs Oku was too much for her to bear. She left South Africa for Israel and sent her kids to stay with her mother in Nigeria.

She said she developed anger issues and was so depressed for years that she had to be checked into a hospital.

“Up till today, I have not recovered from it. I sleep every day, dreaming of her.

“I wish the doctors could have kept her for me in that vegetable state just to watch her grow. It didn’t happen. I wish I had more time to console her and speak to her. She never spoke to me. We never had anything to say.

“My son hasn’t gotten over it. I have a child here in Israel where I am based now, and whenever he speaks to him, he tells him that he once had a sister,” she said.

She also noted that sometimes she would mention Ihuoma’s name in her sleep, forgetting that she had passed.

“I never threw any of her things away. I kept them. At that time, I blamed my husband for everything.

“My worst challenge to date is that the woman whom we came to be with said I said some things in her car that day when I held my dying child in my hands.

“She said I even accused her family of foul play. I was made to apologise to her and her husband. My offence was that I was grieving my child and said some things that didn’t sit well with her.

“They even called me for a meeting to apologise to her. Who in the right senses would be keeping a record of what a grieving woman was saying in her moment of grief? My baby’s brain was out and all she could do was take note of what I was saying?” she asked.

Buried same day

Mrs Oku also noted that Ihuoma was buried the same day after an autopsy conducted by the hospital showed that the cause of the death was the gate and there was no foul play.

“The family in whose house this thing happened sponsored the burial. From the minute my daughter was buried, that was the last of my communication with that family. Up until today, we don’t talk. All she (relative) had in her mind was that I said this and I said that.

“The pain of losing a child and not having closure keeps me awake every night. I am not a happy woman.

“I see my husband sometimes crying. He goes outside the house and cries like a baby and comes in and acts like nothing happened.

“That time it happened, I blamed him for everything. She would have been 12 years now but her life was cut short right before our own eyes, and forgiving myself is the last thing on my mind,” she added.

How to avoid sliding gate accidents

Sliding gate, although seen as cutting-edge in technology, is very dangerous if not properly installed, managed and handled. It has led to the death of many, especially children.

Recently, CCTV footage surfaced of how a woman and child were smashed by a sliding gate when they tried to open it up for a driver to drive in. Chances of survival from such an incident are mostly slim, as the gates are, oftentimes, heavy and their impact can be fatal.

An engineer, Mr Ademola Ogun, who said he was an expert in the installation and maintenance of these kinds of gates, said sliding and swinging gates that move are attached to fixed panels or walls that make up the perimeter boundary of a property.

In an emailed interview with our correspondent, he noted that gate injuries are often caused by improper design and fabrication.

“From the inception of a new gate project, an improperly crafted gate is inherently the beginning of a future serious injury or even deadly claim.

“In every automatic operator installation manual that I have seen and used, there is the basic requirement that before installation the gate should be properly configured and working correctly in the manual mode.

“If the gate design and function is unsafe before automation, it is not going to be functioning safer after an automatic operator is installed. It is below the industry-wide standard of care to attempt to depend upon an automated operator to limit the path of travel of an improperly configured manual gate.

“It is not acceptable to allow an operator to overpower and move a binding gate that has defectively operating components needing replacement,” he said.

He also stated that most of the injury claims that involve sliding gates falling onto pedestrians are the direct result of an original failure to install adequate restrictors or, through lack of inspection and maintenance, original components are bent out of alignment, broken, or completely missing.

“The design intent and the purpose of perpendicular intersecting metal stops are to keep the sliding mechanism from exceeding the upright enclosure. I have seen installations where there are no upright corrals that need to be in place to maintain the sliding gate in an upright and secure position. When gate stops are broken or missing, the full length of the gate can be pulled past the fixed corral that is supposed to keep the gate in an attached and upright position when the gate has over-traveled,” he said.

According to an online resource, Micheal Panish Construction Expert Witness, there are usually at least two components that are observed to be missing or defective regarding gate stops.

One is the absence of any restricting stop component, the other is missing or broken pinch rollers that are used to guide and align the sliding gate as it opens and closes.

In some poorly maintained installations where perpendicular restrictors are installed, they have not been fabricated to be long enough or high enough to stop the gate from over-travelling.

“They are often found to be rotted or so thoroughly rusted that they fall apart when they are impacted. In many inspections, I have seen weld mark locations where a gate stop was originally located but was completely missing at the time of the injury incident. In other inspections, it has been discovered that the material used to stop the gate travel had shifted out of the appropriate location and the pinch rollers were broken allowing the gate to pass the potential stop position and fall on an unsuspecting user,” the resource added.

A child safety expert, Michael Adesanya, advised parents not to let their kids go close to or attempt to open a sliding gate or a gate of any kind.

“Gates are meant for adults to open, not kids. If they insist they want to open it, get an automated gate where remotes can be used. Manual gate opening has claimed many lives,” he added.

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