By Kenton X. Chance
The search continues today, Wednesday, for two persons still missing at sea and presumed dead after the minivan carrying 21 passengers, including at least 14 students, plunged into the sea at Rock Gutter in north-eastern St. Vincent on Monday.
Grief gave way to anger among some residents of Fancy, who gathered at Rock Gutter for a second consecutive day on Tuesday, as the search continued for Chanstacia Stay, 14, a student of North Union Secondary School (NUSS), and 13-year-old Simonique Ballantyne of Georgetown Secondary School.
Officials have confirmed that five persons died, and 10 were hospitalized as a result of the incident in northeastern St. Vincent, but have not released the names, formally.
Principal of NUSS, St. Clair Da Santos, said told I-Witness News that to of his students died. They are 12- and 14-year-old brothers, Jamilie and Jamall Edward, and Anique Elexander, 12.
Also dead, police say, are 16-year-old Glendon Michael of St. Vincent Grammar School, and Racquel Ashton, a 16-year-old student of Georgetown Secondary.
All of the person who were in the bus when it plunged into the sea on the way to Kingstown early Monday morning were residents of Fancy, a community on St. Vincent’s northeastern tip.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health said seven persons, three children and four adults, remained hospitalised at Milton Cato Memorial Hospital in Kingstown, the nation’s main healthcare facility.
In Rock Gutter, midmorning Tuesday, Chestlite Ballantyne, younger brother of Station Sergeant of Police, detective Hesron Ballantyne, was waiting to assist again in the search for his older brother’s daughter, Semonique, along with the other missing girl, Chanstacia Stay.
Chestlite told I-Witness News that he and other men, on Monday, removed four bodies from the rough waters characteristic of the Atlantic side of St. Vincent, but were not pleased with the response of police.
“Me and my boy them alone took out the dead bodies from out of the water; the police never gi’ we a strength (a helping hand), until we reach up in the road. Then the police still running we like dog. And we deserve more respect than that, where the police didn’t give a hand to help we down by the seaside,” Cheslite told I-Witness News on Tuesday.
Okeino Bowens, one of the men who assisted in retrieving bodies, told I-Witness News he lost two of his cousins – the Bowens brothers — in the tragedy.
“Right now, I know their father is in real pain because he right now behind the bars (in prison) in Martinique, so I know is real pain they feeling,” Bowens said.
He also lamented what they considered a lack of assistance from police in retrieving the bodies.
“Yesterday when I come here, no help from the police; no help from the police at all. I have to mek bad when I see them grab the girl and no police come to help. I have to say something about it.
“And next thing I hear on the news, that police help. I ain’t see police help there,” said Bowens who had on his back, the knapsack of his brother-in-law who is hospitalised with a broken leg as a result of the incident.
“Right now, we are trying to hold the faith with everybody.”
But Bowens’ anger was not only directed at the police. He told I-Witness News that a person with interest in the vehicle telephoned a relative to ask if a purse had been recovered.
“He ain’t concerned about nobody life? He ain’t concerned about the life that go down there? He ain’t concerned about nothing! All he concerned about is money. Boss man, we ain’t like them things; we gotta do something about it out here.”
On Monday, police and disaster managers struggled to implement crowd control measures as thousands of persons converged on the site.
After the partly nude body of a female student was retrieved from the water then placed uncovered on the bare concrete, one police officer insisted that the residents who had retrieved the body and other civilians move away.
The officer was reminded by one of his colleagues that the same civilians he was chasing away had retrieved the body.
Officials have praised the response of health officials to the mass casualty situation in providing healthcare to the injured and have promised a review to identify weaknesses in the response.
But already, some observers have expressed disappointment that in a situation where there were confirmed deaths and persons were missing, officials did not bring body bags to the scene in an effort to preserve the dignity of the dead.
The female student whose partly nude body was the last to be taken out of the water on Monday, was placed on the concrete road, then later covered with a tarpaulin, before being wrapped in a blanket and placed in the back of a government vehicle.
While the body was on the road, scores of persons, including media practitioners, took photos and videos of the scene.
Some police officers, rather than appealing for sensitivity, kept repeating “No pictures! No pictures!”
One officer, dressed in civilian clothes, said to one person, “You want me to take it (image capturing device) away and delete them (images),” a response that Commissioner of Police Michael Charles condemned when it was reported to him.
Most Vincentians can boast of not living more than 20 minutes drive away from a health centre, but a persons who assisted in transporting the injured to hospital complained that there was no oxygen at any of the three health centre from Owia to Georgetown, where a hospital is located.
Cheslite’s own brother, Hesron, who heads the Criminal Investigation Unit in Calliaqua, and his wife, were at Rock Gutter on Tuesday as officers from various units of the Police Force, including the Coastguard, scanned the waters for the two missing students.
The father was too emotional for an interview, but expressed appreciation that both of his daughters were not on the same bus that day.
Assistant Commissioner of Police, Christopher Benjamin told I-Witness News that police would spare no effort in trying to recover the two missing persons.
He said that the Coastguard would put a specialist diver in the rough waters, but was not discrediting the importance of local knowledge in an area where the swells are high and the undercurrent strong.
The Coastguard vessel that was on site assisted in placing local residents in the water who used snorkel gear in their search for the two missing girls.
Among the persons who assisted in this way, were residents Dillon Baptiste and Oneal Thomas.
“The water [is] dark; the waves [have] stirred up the water, so it is dirty, so you can’t see as much as you are supposed to see,” Baptiste told I-Witness News after a four-hour stint in the water.
He said it is very difficult to swim in the rough sea, where the shoreline is lined with large boulders.
“It is really difficult, because the current underneath [is] strong,” he said, and opined that the tide has already dragged the two missing persons away.
Asked if they were concerned for their own safety, Thomas said, “Well, we tried to assist.”
“We just try to assist them, to make them feel pleased [after] what happened,” Baptiste added.
Thomas and Baptiste were among scores of residents of North Windward — Fancy especially — who, on Tuesday, returned to the scene to do whatever they could to assist.
“We are in support of two parents who are still missing two girls — two of our school girls. So we are all here this morning to see if they can retrieve the bodies so that we can have a closure to this part of the tragedy at this location,” Fancy resident Urna Michael told I-Witness News.
She said residents of Fancy were all shaken up by the tragedy.
“Fancy is a small community and we are all closely related, so each person would have had a relative in the accident. And even though we don’t have a relative, we might have a neighbour, a friend, a church member, because we are all from this small community.
“I don’t think there is anybody who it would not have touched. We are all touched, we are all shaken, we are all grieved and we just have to bond together to support each other,” Michael told I-Witness News.
In Fancy, a crisis centre has been set up at the Seventh Day Adventist Church to complement the one opened in Owia immediately after the tragedy.
Among the psychotherapists is Samuel Joyles, a counsellor with the mental health department of the Ministry of Health, who had been a pastor at the church for some years.
“This is open here so that people who are grieving, they can come across here. Counsellors are here — myself and others — who can talk with them, console them, we also do a lot of praying and so forth,” Joyles told I-Witness News.
“Whatever the need is at the particular moment, psychologically, spiritually, we’ll try to provide.”
He said people are open to prayer.
“So we did a lot of that — spiritual therapy, if you want to say that. Apart from that, just talking, having individuals just talking, they enjoyed that as well. Not much of a big counselling really but having them talk,” he said.
Joyles said it might be helpful for persons who are not directly affected but are being impacted by the tragedy to visit the area.
“Everybody in Fancy is impacted by this, most of the folk are related. So, it is a village that is mourning. So if you are outside of Fancy and you are hurting, it might do you some good if you can visit, come out here, talk to the folks and mingle with them.
“And in the process of talking and mingling with them, praying, offering some consolation, you yourself will minister to yourself.”
Joyles spoke of the December 2013 floods, when St. Vincent and the Grenadines experienced similar tragedy when 12 persons were killed by floods and landslides.
“There was a lot of solidarity, we came together, people helped. This is another occasion. This one needs more of people comforting people and consoling people, because in the days and weeks ahead, it is going to kick in even further. The funerals are yet to come, so people are going to need support along the line.
“We are a small community, the Grenadines is there, if people from the Grenadines can share, calling in on the radio or whatever you can do to send your messages of condolences to the people in Fancy will be greatly appreciated.”
Classes were suspended for a second consecutive day on Tuesday at North Union Secondary School, which lost three students in the tragedy, while another is missing.
Principal, St. Clair Da Santos told reporters on Monday that a large number of students collapsed when the news broke.
He told I-Witness News on Tuesday that some students were yet to come to terms with the reality of the accident.
“The mood is still a very sad one. This morning when I came in, I was greeted by a number of students who were really curious to find out if that is really true, if we have lost those students. And they were still crying, teachers [are] still very sad.”
The classmates of students who died, or are missing, received counseling on Tuesday and a group of teachers, counselors, pastors and members of the Inter-School Christian Fellowship, as well as members of the Principals Association visited Fancy.
Da Santos said the school will try to reconvene classes today, Wednesday.
Parents’ day was scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, but will be postponed to next week, he said.
“But we are monitoring the situation and see how best we can handle it,” he told I-Witness News.
Michael Thomas teaches four of the students injured and taught two of the students who died.
“To be honest, I am very shaken up. I try not to think about it because it leads me to tears, but everywhere I turn, I can’t escape it. I wish it was something that didn’t happen, but [it is] something which I have to live with.
Form 4 student, Keanu Shortte, recounted his last conversation with Jamalie Edwards, whom he described as a “good boy”.
“Just Thursday, he and I were having a conversation in his class, then Friday he ain’t come school; he went to town,” he said, adding that the conversation was about “life and what he wanted to be when he grows up”.
Science student, Reniah Harry, said a male classmate has died while a female is missing and another female classmate injured her foot.
“Actually, I feel terrible because it could have been me in that accident. Right now, my heart is weeping and mourning. They were my classmates and my friend. The one who cannot be found was my bestie.
“So I feel kind of terrible for them and for their parents.”