By Amindeh Blaise Atabong
YAOUNDE (Reuters) - A cigarette break made the difference between life and death for Makolo Doss, who stepped aside from a memorial celebration to have a smoke just as a mass of red earth suddenly collapsed on the gathering.
Fifteen others at the event, in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde on Sunday, were not so lucky, killed by the landslide as they were celebrating the lives of a group of deceased loved ones with drums, dancing and beers.
"I missed death by just a second," said Doss on Monday, still reeling.
The celebration was taking place on a football pitch bordered by a steep earth embankment. Doss said he had been walking away from the other guests to avoid smoking near them when he heard part of the embankment suddenly slide down.
"I immediately turned and looked towards where I had been sitting but I couldn't see the attendees nor the chairs. They had been covered by the earth," he said.
For Fotso Claude Michel, a warning came when a stone fell from above and hit him on the head. Looking up, he saw the earth collapsing towards him.
"I jumped from where I was sitting but fell to the ground. I got up again but fell for the second time," he said.
Partially buried, Michel was among survivors who were dug out by members of the community who came running to the rescue with spades - but he lost his mother, brother and best friend in the tragedy.
"I am heartbroken," he said.
Yaounde is one of the wettest cities in Africa, though it did not rain there on Sunday. Cameroon has been hit by severe flooding in several regions this year, as has its neighbour Nigeria.
The authorities have so far given no information about what caused the Yaounde disaster. A death toll of 14 was initially announced, but it had risen to 15 by Monday, with four injured, according to Naseri Paul Bea, the governor of Centre Region.
It was thought to be the deadliest landslide in Cameroon since one that killed at least 42 people in the city of Bafoussam, in the West Region, in 2019.
Yves-Bertrand Ela, one of the local residents who came running shortly after Sunday's landslide, had blisters on his palms from digging for survivors.
"We rescued several people who were still breathing but who later died on the spot because there was no immediate means to evacuate them to the hospital," he said, visibly tired and shocked by his experience.
"It is a very unfortunate and terrible incident. I have never seen such. Our younger ones play football there every day."
(Reporting by Amindeh Blaise Atabong; Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Alex Richardson)