The Twenty-Year Anniversary of the No-Way Camp Tragedy
By Nat Galarea Gbessagee
October 9, 2002
Last Sunday, October 6, marked the 20th anniversary of the 1982 Landslide Disaster that rocked the little Liberian mining town of No-Way Camp in Grand Cape Mount County, and claimed the lives of at least 200 peasant miners (by official count but unofficial count might be higher). As Chief Reporter with the state news agency, LINA, at the time, I was one of few reporters who traveled to No-Way Camp to witness the devastation of the landslide firsthand and report on the poignant recovery efforts. The scenery was ghastly and gruesome with human parts excavated here and there by recovery workers, drowned in by the wailings and cries of surviving relatives of the victims of the landslide.
The local hospital morgue was parked with unidentified corpses, and the wounded crowded company hospital beds and waiting rooms as they were being treated or awaited treatment. Family members and recovery workers braved the pungent scent of the hospital grounds to rush in more wounded persons, to console and care for seriously wounded family members or simply to identify corpses. The management of NIOC, the mining company on whose watch the landslide occurred, seemed ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle the effects of the landslide as rescue workers from Monrovia and other parts of Liberia were called in to help with the recovery efforts. Some of the wounded persons were evacuated to hospitals in Monrovia and nearby Counties for treatment.
Meanwhile, in the main theater of the landslide, recovery efforts persisted. Recovery workers worked around the clock but managed to dig up a few survivors. The bulk of their work involved containment of further erosion of the residue of the landslide, and recovering human parts (an arm here, a leg there, and so forth), along with some personal valuables of the landslide victims. I can remember one of the victims was a market woman from Monrovia who had gone to No-Way Camp to sell some goods, but got swept away in the landslide and the only thing found of her was an arm holding onto a handbag with 37 dollars in it. I was still at No-Way Camp when the news of the market woman story was broadcast on local radio, but it was the main story that brought tears to many as I later learned from my family upon return home.
For the two days I spent in No-Way Camp reporting on the landslide recovery efforts, I couldn’t help but notice the vast disparity between the living quarters for miners and management staff. While the management staff lived in huge bungalows with modern household amenities imaginable, the peasant miners lived in squalors and makeshift dwellings squashed between tailing dams and hilly terrains. The landslide was most likely a direct result of one of the tailing dams rupturing, as you will learn later in a 1982 article on the causes and effects of the landslide reproduced in the body of this article for your easy reference. That article also documented pronouncements by the government and the NIOC management to compensate families of victims, but I have no recollection as to whether or not any of the promises were fulfilled.
However, on this 20th anniversary of the No-Way Camp Landslide Disaster, it is both befitting to remember the persons who perished during that national tragedy in 1982 and to draw parallels to the 1989-1997 Liberian civil war and the social-economic, and political catastrophes occurring in Liberia today. Prior to the 1982 landslide, government health and environmental inspectors who visited the No-Way Camp and saw the locations and conditions of the living quarters for miners had no qualms about safety of the camps or the environmental impact of the tailings dams. Even private investigators, private lawyers, and media executives found nothing inherently flawed with the living arrangements for the miners to warrant public alarm. After all, neither the government inspectors and private lawyers nor media executives and their relatives lived in the Camp so how could they care for the catastrophe waiting to happen. The peasant miners were left alone to fend for themselves, and went the dangers in waiting finally came with a ruptured tailings dam that buried alive scores of miners along with their homes, the public alarm still didn’t sound aloud. And this underscored the general tendency in Liberia that unless something affects you or a family member directly, it is always a matter of the “other people’s business”, and of little or no interest to us.
It is this very attitude that continues to haunt Liberians today, and makes finding a common solution to the persisting Liberian problems somehow impossible. For instance, at the start of the rebel invasion in 1989, many government officials and security personnel clandestinely became willing participants in the revolt because it was generally thought that the target was the sitting president, and once the target was removed, all will be well. Worse still, the residents of Monrovia thought they would remain safe from the devastations and mass killings that were taking place in Nimba, Bong, Grand Bassa, Rivercess, Sinoe, Maryland, Grand Cape Mount, Bomi and other Counties at the time so they exhibited an uncanny degree of complacency and indifference to the war. It was only when the war reached Paynesville, Gardnersville and other suburbs of Monrovia that escape routes were sought but it was now too late. Like the peasant miners of No-Way Camp, the residents of Monrovia were too late to salvage anything of value except to adapt to a new lifestyle of abject poverty and virtual servitude.
Again, like events leading up to the No-Way Camp Landslide disaster and the 1989-1997 civil war, Liberians are once more taking a backseat to the prevailing socio-economic and political conditions at home. The government, the opposition, and the dissident groups continued to overplay their hands in asserting their right to bring about a balance of power in Liberia. No group wants to put aside ego and work toward the national good. The opposition is as divided as night and day in terms of strategy and approach, and the government thinks it has the final say on issues of elections, good governance, and civil liberties. Ordinary Liberians are equally divided along the lines of loyalty and complacency, and think they can simply watch from the sidelines as the politicians sort things out amongst themselves. Did No-Way Camp mean anything at all? I guess we have got a long way to go as a nation and peace as peace, unity, development and stability continue to elude us!
Original Article as published in the New Liberian Newspaper in 1982
“The No-Way Camp Tragedy: A Case Study”
By Nat Galarea Gbessagee
Chief Reporter, LINA
To reflect on the October 6 No-Way Camp Landslide tragedy is indeed a portrayal of a very sad memory. A sad memory if one considers the many innocent lives lost in just the twinkle of an eye! And indeed, that night’s time tragedy shall never be forgotten by those who survived it, or the families of those victimized by it. Needless to mention the government and people of Liberia; for this was the first time in the 135-year history of this oldest African republic that such an incident had occurred.
Surely a great catastrophe did beset the nation on that fateful night of October 6, 1982. And equally so, generations yet unborn will certainly learn of this sudden calamity in history with deep sadness and sympathy for the nearly two hundred persons presumed dead or wounded in the landslide.
But there is also justification to point out why the disaster had occurred in the first place, and what steps are being taken to prevent the occurrence of another danger in the area.
Actually, no one could definitely point out at the early stages of the incident the direct causes of the landslide; except that everyone only tried to interpret what he felt was the cause of the great misfortune. Thus, some attributed it to the stock-plies of loose earth, which they said eroded following a two-day of heavy rainfall in the area. Some attributed it to an over-flowing dam nearest the camp, while others felt that it was the combination of the two (the forceful movement of the loose earth which eroded into the dam and making it to overflow) that caused the landslide.
Several other persons expressed the views that since the landslide was most likely caused by the eroding loose earth, the fact that the loose earth had been demolished during the incident, there would be no other catastrophe in the area. But others still felt that another landslide may occur in the same area due to the reported discovery of a natural dam near No-Way Camp.
Then there were those who also felt that the landslide could have been avoided if the necessary precautionary measures were taken. This they said was possible through an early relocation of the camp. But again, many other persons argued that the disaster could have never been avoided in the absence of a thorough geological survey of the entire area to warn against such unfortunate incident.
Of course, however, these contrasting views were bound to hold some truth; not until a technical team from the ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, comprising engineers, geologists, hydrochemists and photogrammetists conducted a “case study” of the disaster, and came up with some recommendations.
The team’s task was mainly to study the causes and effects of the landslide, and to devise and recommend measures aimed at preventing the recurrence of such catastrophe in the National Iron Ore Company (NIOC) area, especially within residential areas. The team was also mandated to study the environment impacts of the entire mining area, health and safety conditions, and possible resettlement of the victims (say the survivors) at vicinities outside the disastrous area.
The team which concluded its study or investigation of the area within five days beginning October 11 15, began by analyzing the causes and effects of the landslide.
Causes and Effects
First let’s understand the word landslide. The Second College Edition of the Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “landslide” as the sliding of a mass of loosened rocks or earth down a hillside or slope.
Hence, the occurrence of a landslide is no strange nor major development in the mining industry, or areas of mining operations; the difference with the No-Way Camp Landslide is that it destroyed lives and properties. Scientifically, whenever a cut in the earth is triggered by water, wind, or tectonic failure, both rock and soil lose their cohesiveness, or binding capability and fall. And, this was exactly what happened in the case of the No-Way Camp tragedy.
However, the technical team’s report, naming the collapsed hill as “H-Hill” (a roughly conical hill with a base of about four hundred feet, and a height of about one thousand-two hundred and ninety feet), blamed the landslide disaster on the removal of the “primary forest” beneath the hill for farming purposes by inhabitants of the affected camp and its environs which the report noted increased soil erosion in the area.
It also blamed the causes of the disaster on the steepening of waste dump slopes beyond the natural angle of repose of the waste material, and thus causing a “gradual slope instability”, the failure of the H-Hill waste dump as a gravitational stress which exceeded the resistance of the underlying material, as well as the occurrence of abundant rainfall at the time, coupled with poorly drained benches which caused seepage and saturation of the ground between H-Hill and a nearby tailings dam.
Hence, the failure of the H-Hill waste dump resulted into the mass rotational movement of about a million ton of debris down slope, which slid into the end of the tailings pond, thus causing a sudden displacement of mud from the pond over the nearby dam. As a result, the sudden flow of the highly viscous mud and debris damaged and removed portions of the infrastructures built below the dam.
With such situation, the team then warned in its report that another landslide may occur in the same area if post-disaster measures are not immediately taken. It said the H-Hill still remains an area of potential land and debris slide threat to the inhabitants of No-Way camp and nearby Jang-Jeng Town (two houses were destroyed in Jeng-Jeng Town during the landslide) because of the newly developed transverse cracks observed on the surface of the hill.
Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety
Firstly, before treating the subject, let’s consider the subject; let’s consider the geological pri picture of this concessional area where the landslide had occurred. The NIOC is located about ninety-five miles Northwest of Monrovia in the mountainous area of Mano River, Grand Cape Mount County. It covers an area of about 15.8 square miles with four major divisional areas including No-Way Camp. It is bounded on the east by Gola-Kumgbor Forest and on the west by River Mano.
The land area on which the company is situated is dominated by a chain of eight prominent hills (geologically referred to as A, E, H, I, J, V, 5 and 6 Hills) which are divided in parts by a radial drainage pattern which flows westward into the Mano River.
However, unlike most iron ore companies in Liberia, NIOC residential areas are built within the company’s operational sites. Hence, the location of camps and administrative offices within areas of mining operations creates a hazardous problem of health and safety for the employees. And, besides polluting the air with dust particles, which may result into lung infection by inhaling, the inadequate construction of tailings ponds and drainage within the company area, also pollute nearby creeks and streams, as well as the Mano River itself.
After analyzing the causes and effects of the landslide, and other problems posed by the very structural setting of the company, the technical team recommended that all company units within the No-Way Camp area (both affected and unaffected units) be immediately demolished, and the inhabitants relocated.
The team also recommended that deforestation due to farming and firewood collection be discouraged because it said such methods of forest destruction leave the soil barren, and thus expose the cliffs to intensive soil erosion during period of torrential rains.
The report also included a call on the NIOC management to regularly monitor the various waste dumpsites within the company area for possible rates of displacements of the area, as well as the holding of informal educational lectures with its workforce on the causes, effects and post-disaster measures of the landslide. It also called on management to conduct guided tours of all its dumpsites to explain the possibility or impossibility of landslides to its employees.
The technical team also recommended that the slope stability of mine benches within the company area be maintained to avoid water seepage which could in turn create extensive cracks and an eventual landslide, and that tailings ponds be constructed to collect an settle the solids from the excessive waste waters draining from mine dumps, hill slopes, and the washing plants, etc.
In the same booklet of the technical team’s report, authorities at the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy asked the management of NIOC to among other things, construct a monument at the burial site of the landslide victims for historical purposes, and to integrate a new worker’s camp with Kongo Town. The authorities said this would improve the general operations of the company mine, as well as improve the over-all infrastructure at Kongo Town.
However, since the occurrence of that fateful incident a few months ago, government rescue workers in collaboration with NIOC personnel were only able to discover about fifty bodies from the debris. The deads were later buried at a selected site in Kongo Town with every appropriate honor befitting them. (The Liberian Leader, CIC Samuel Doe personally participated in the burial ceremonies). Even at present, the name of each victim is inscribed on cross-like wood and placed before his grave. There is in fact indication that a vault would be built around each grave when the company’s financial situation improves.
Also, of the nearby forty persons rescued by the rescue workers and hospitalized, all have been discharged except one. Those discharged (excluding widows and children) have already resumed work, and relocated either at Valley Camp or Kongo Town, or given housing allowances, NIOC General Manager, Mr. Lawrence E. Fisher told newsmen recently.
Mr. Fisher said periodic checks would be made at each company dumpsite to guide against the possible occurrence of another landslide in the area, in accordance with the technical team’s report.
He ruled out the possibility of another landslide in No-Way Camp area as advised by the technical team, and disclosed that survivors of the landslide and other employees would be relocated in the unaffected units at No-Way if a current study of plan for doing so is concluded.
He said the company presently has a workforce of about two thousand with only five hundred residential houses, noting that the company cannot continue to pay for rented houses because of its financial difficulties (During the landslide, twelve out of thirty-six company units were destroyed along with five private homes).
Mr. Fisher, however, disclosed that his company would soon commence a study of its insurance policy to determine the benefit to be received by each survivor, or beneficiaries of each victim (dead).
Again, let it be known that since the occurrence of that unfortunate incident, the Government of Liberia and the Liberian Red Cross Society had been exalting all efforts to rehabilitate the victims of the landslide.
The government did launch a “National Disaster Relief Fund” to which massive contribution are still being made from a cross-section of the Liberian citizenry, business sector, friends of Liberia and international organizations.
The government has also mandated the Chairman of the Board of Directors of NIOC to work out a scheme whereby the contributions received could be delivered to the victims without delay. This entails that the mandate is calling for identification of actual beneficiaries of those who died in the landslide, as there may be several claimants, as well as giving each survivor his just share.
The Liberian Red Cross Society on the other hand, had been busy supplying the victims with medical care, household utensils, food and other items until recently when it pulled out. Authorities of the Red Cross put their contribution to survivors of the landslide between twenty-two and twenty-four thousand U.S. dollars.
Also, the press, local and foreign, had been following the event with interest. They arouse public consciousness of the situation in their effort to give an accurate account of the landslide. Just recently, a group of Liberian pressmen, including photographers, reporters and television cameramen, walked for several hours up the steep mountains in their effort to still acquaint the public with the actual situation.
Hence, for those who watched television recently to see the shooting done of the disastrous area from up the mountains, and those who may read this article, will surely get a true understanding of how the landslide occurred.