KINGSTOWN –– Arson is suspected in the huge fire at the Public Works compound in Arnos Vale today that destroyed a warehouse full of building materials.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves sought to link the fire to the ongoing protest by the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) over the December 9 election results, but said he was not blaming the party for the blaze.
“. . . The commissioner of police indicated to me that they have a reasonable suspicion that it is arson,” he told a Press conference this morning.
He said the fire would affect the government’s social programmes.
“. . . Apart from the fundamental law and order question, . . . the immediate effect [of the fire] is that an old lady or an old man who has an unfinished Lives To Live unit, that that person has the imminent hope of that taking place dashed, at least temporarily. And persons who are holding vouchers — poor people, if they were to get that material in the next week or two, it may be several weeks or months.”
The fire continued to blaze past 7 a.m., five hours after the alarm was raised.
A large amount of building material went up in smoke, notwithstanding the use of one of three fire trucks purchased for use at the Argyle International Airport.
Gonsalves noted that the warehouse contained building materials for the Ministry of Housing.
“Building materials for the poor, the needy, the indigent; building materials for individuals who had their homes damaged or destroyed in natural disasters and to complete the 90 Lives To Live units which have commenced,” he told a media briefing.
Lives To Live is a programme under which the government builds small wooden houses for elder and poor Vincentians.
Gonsalves said persons with vouchers to collect building materials redeemed them principally at that storage facility, located just outside the runway of E.T. Joshua Airport.
“So, apart from any possible or probably criminal character of this fire, this is a fire directed against the poor people of this country, the vulnerable and the marginalized,” Gonsalves said.
“Let us call a spade a spade,” he said. “This is not a fire directed at Ralph Gonsalves. This is not a fire directed at [Leader of the Opposition] Arnhim Eustace. This is not a fire directed at persons who have their mortgages and are dealing with their housing concerns by themselves.”
He said that while galvanised roofing sheet and large quantities of plywood had been destroyed, firefighters contained the fire, so that it did not affect another area of the premises where building materials are also stored.
“I do not want to speak to the evidence which the commissioner of police drew my attention to for them to conclude reasonable that it is arson. That is not my province; that is the province of the police to speak towards at the appropriate time. But that is the thesis; that is the reasonable suspicion upon which they are operating.”
The fire took place “within a broader context” in which the opposition is not prepared to accept that they lost the December 9 general election, Gonsalves said.
Election officials say that Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party won eight of the 15 electoral seats and a fourth consecutive term in office.
But the NDP has maintained the vote was rigged and that it is the legitimate government.
Gonsalves accused the NDP of “engendering anti-government and anti-Supervisor of Elections sentiments to a degree that a text can be written, metaphorically, even though they themselves don’t write the text . . .”.
He claimed that the media and the public knew this and the NDP would also know that persons “would come to reasonable conclusions”.
“Clearly, I cannot be as irresponsible to accuse the opposition of this fire. No one can reasonably do so, but a context is being manufactured in which this type of behaviour is accorded a veneer of legitimacy,” he said.
“If the police are proven correct with their reasonable suspicion, it is a crime.”
Gonsalves said while there could be spontaneous combustion, as in the case of a bushfire, this didn’t happen in buildings. He told the media the blaze took place in the context of persons who were “clearly eager to set fires”, and mentioned the two instances of Molotov cocktails found at the state-owned electricity company over the past week. Gonsalves also said that when the cabinet was sworn in in Kingstown last month, persons lit a fire in front of Y. De Lima store on Bay Street, Kingstown.
“Some persons, as a form of political protest, are not opposed to lighting fires,” he said.
“I am sure that the opposition will denounce the fire. I am quite sure. And no one would be able, reasonably, to say that such denunciation is not sincere.
“But if a context is manufactured or engendered where elements whom you are leading, for one reason or the other, are encouraged to believe the falsehood that the elections were not free and fair, that they themselves would feel motivated to commit unlawful acts,” Gonsalves said.