by Kenton Chance
At the side of the road in Rock Gutter, an area between Owia and Fancy in north-eastern St Vincent, a single white shoe lies soaked by seawater on the pavement in the Monday mid-morning. In the raging sea nearby, books rise intermittently to the surface, only to disappear again under the white foamy water of the Atlantic that continuously batters St Vincent’s north-eastern coast.
Here and there, every so often, a student’s knapsack too comes to the top. At another point along the coast, what appears to be an article of clothing churns in what, ironically, seems like nature’s washing machine.
“Look one dey!” a voice shouts.
And the hundreds of people peering into the sea move in the direction indicated. The voice is not talking about shoes, books, knapsacks or articles of clothing. Someone has caught a glimpse of a student’s body bobbing about in the water. Almost as quickly as the body surfaces, it vanishes again, masked by the white foam that forms as the ten-foot swells lash against the rocky shore.
It will be another hour before the water brings the body close enough to the rock for residents of North Windward — home to descendants of this country’s only national hero — to grab it and bring it ashore. With the retrieval of the body, that of teenage female clad in the skirt of North Union Secondary School, the North Windward community of Fancy — where residents live as one large family — and, by extension, the whole of St Vincent and the Grenadines are again stabbed by the confirmation that another person has been added to the tally of lives lost in the unexplained tragedy.
If it is any consolation, the retrieval of the body, and the funeral to follow, will provide some level of closure.
By yesterday evening, officials would have confirmed that five people had died, two were missing, and ten hospitalized after a minibus, transporting 21 passengers, including 14 students, had overturned, falling down an embankment and ending up in the sea. Officials are yet to release the names of the dead and missing.
The remains of the bus — a flat sheet of metal with only the tyres still intact — lodged among the rocks and battered by the waves, tell the miracle of survival of its last passengers. Once again, tragedy brings St Vincent and the Grenadines together as people travel as much as 30 miles to see what has happened and to offer comforting words.
At the scene, a reporter offers a police officer his notepad as the law enforcement official begins the difficult task of trying to determine who was on the bus. Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace, who had earlier yesterday been preparing for the Budget — an especially important, sometimes point-scoring exercise in an election year — chat at the side of the road.
Relatives of people believed to have been on the bus cry as they wait in the back of a pickup truck for word about their loved ones.
As state officials try to implement crowd control measures, a police officer insists that the crowd of civilians move back. One of the police officer’s colleagues reminds him that the same civilians are the ones who have been recovering bodies from the sea. All around, residents of the area, especially the relatives of those involved in the accident, are in shock. Reporters decide they would be best left alone as they struggle to come to terms with the magnitude of the disaster.
“From my own recollection, I think this is the worst tragedy in this area for all of my life,” Member of Parliament for North Windward and Minister of Housing Montgomery Daniel tells I-Witness News at the scene.
Daniel, who lives in Sandy Bay, another North Windward community, says that he went to school in Fancy as a young schoolboy in the 1960s.
“There has never, ever been such a tragedy that I know of since then,” says Daniel who got the news of the accident around 7:40 a.m. while on his way to Kingstown. “When I got here . . . some of the bodies were already fished out of the water, and I met the ambulance on the way coming,” says Daniel who transported relatives of the injured to their home to collect supplies for their hospitalized loved ones.
“And so doing, I got more precise information as to the numbers that existed on the vehicle. There were at the moment some 19 or 20 children in the vehicle. One who attends the Grammar School, 16 who attend the North Union Secondary, and two or three the Georgetown Secondary.
“I [saw] bodies every now and again being pushed around by the waves. But it was difficult, even for the Coastguard to come close by to assist.
“We [saw] support coming from local persons here in Owia,” he says, adding that a local fishing vessel and divers from the area were assisting the Coastguard. “They were able to help in having four bodies coming out of the water,” Daniel said of the civilians. “The families are very distraught at this time, and I want to, on behalf of the government and on my own behalf, extend my deepest sympathy to the families.
Retired educator Pastor Samson George, tells of the impact of the tragedy on Fancy, where he says the community is like one large family.
“It is a sad thing what happened in Fancy this morning . . . ; it’s almost heart-breaking knowing that you have a loved one going to school and they departed so quickly; it’s really sad,” he says, adding that the communities North of Rabacca Dry River are all in mourning.
“I understand that no school is being kept right now, because of the connection with the families and the loved ones in the school,” the pastor says.
Two members of his congregation, both females, were on the bus, and at the time of the interview were still missing at sea.
“It is just a sad case for the families and the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, because it affects everybody,” says George, who was originally scheduled to travel to Kingstown to do painting work at Fort Charlotte but decided to stay at home.
“I could have been dead this morning in that van. Anybody could have been in that van,” he says. “When I was at home, I got a call that the van ran off the road . . . .
“It is alarming knowing that your child left home this morning. You may have hugged them, kissed them and wished them a good day. And then to be greeted with the news that your child died, it is hard to cope with. It’s really hard.
“I have seen some of the loved ones here and their families; they are heartbroken; they can’t say anything. It is just too much pressure flowing through their heads, and they really can’t restrain themselves properly to say anything at all. It is really, really sad. All we can do is hope and pray and strengthen them that remain,” George says.
He speaks of the fragility of life, adding that in light of this, one must always be prepared for death.
“We have to strengthen those who are mourning. Our community is really intertwined. Everybody in Fancy is related to the other . . . . You can imagine there were 15 families or more in the van, so the entire community is mourning and grieving.
“It is rough, man. I just pray that the families find strength in knowing that God is in control and He can see them through this rough time.”
George notes that the tragedy comes just one year after the Christmas Eve flood of 2013, which claimed 12 lives.
“I think this is wake-up call for every individual. Just over a year ago, we had the flood, and now, just a few months after the flood, is another disaster.
“It is really tragic. It is a great loss for St Vincent and the Grenadines, particularly for the people over [north of] the Dry River,” he says.
The St Vincent and the Grenadines Parliament has been postponed for a second consecutive day as the island comes to grip with the tragic accident yesterday that claimed the lives of five. A brief statement from the Office of the Prime Minister acknowledged that the postponement was as “a result of the tragedy in the Fancy area” and that Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, who was due to deliver the national budget, will provide a date for the parliamentary session later on.
The Ministry of Health said it could verify that five people
were killed as a result of the incident in which the minibus plunged into the seas at Rock Gutter.
Teams today resumed their search for two people reported missing and communications officer in the Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment, Neeka Anderson-Isaacs, confirmed that ten people had been hospitalized at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital (MCMH), while four others are at the hospital in Georgetown.
St Lucia’s Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony in a statement today extended condolences and sympathy to the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, recalling that just over three years ago, St Lucia suffered a similar tragedy.
Anthony said while he understood “this must be a very difficult time for the people in St Vincent and the Grenadines . . . a loss of this nature touches all of us throughout the region, and draws us closer together as a people”. He said it was never easy to deal with an accident of this magnitude and that the pain and sorrow were magnified when children were involved.
“I call on my fellow St Lucians to spare a thought and say a prayer for those families who must be in such turmoil right now.
“Our children are of paramount importance, and I take this opportunity to add my voice, my thoughts and prayers for the schools, the communities and the homes that have been impacted by the terrible accident that took place on Monday morning,” Anthony said.
Meanwhile, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretary General Irwin La Rocque said the accident had “deeply saddened” CARICOM and “in this trying time of such grave loss, the Community stands with St Vincent and the Grenadines”. La Rocque said “the Community’s grief is heightened by the fact that many among the deceased were schoolchildren”.