The most qualified diver with SVG Coastguard says that the sea conditions at Rock Gutter were a threat to the lives of Coastguard and civilian divers who went into the water to try to retrieve the bodies of the students who died when a bus plunged into the sea there on Jan. 12.
Master Diver Petty Officer Lennox Williams also suggested at a Police Force press conference on Wednesday that it is highly unlikely that the bodies of the two students missing at sea and presumed dead, will be recovered.
He said that the rough seas and large boulders in the area have, most likely, ripped the bodies apart.
The Coastguard has been criticised for its response after the tragedy, which claimed the lives of five students, with some persons saying that the maritime arm of the Police Force did not do enough to retrieve bodies from the water.
In outlining his qualifications, William said he was trained at the US Naval Dive and Salvage Centre for more than a year, and has completed other short courses at the centre.
He told reporters that he is a deep-sea dive specialist and is qualified to supervise any diving operation, including plane crash sites, sunken boats, and salvage.
He further said he is also qualified to use hardhat diving and scuba diving gear.
He further said he is qualified to dive at depth in excess of 190 feet, and has qualifications in advanced physics and advanced dive medicine.
“I am one of the most qualified divers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the region as a whole,” he told reporters before outlining the conditions at Rock Gutter, on St. Vincent’s north-eastern — Atlantic coast — where the waters are notoriously rough in addition to having dangerous undercurrents.
Williams said he was on his way to work at the Coastguard Base in Calliaqua when he received a call from the officer in charge that a minivan had plunged into the sea.
He said when he arrived at the base he was briefed and within minutes got a team together set out to Fancy.
He said that he received further briefing on the way to Fancy and realised that the environmental conditions would have been a factor by the time he got to area of the tragedy.
“These are areas that we patrol every day. These are area that we well know.
“The condition at Rock Gutter, however, was something of a totally different nature on that particular day,” Williams said of the area, where the waves were splashing water onto the road several metres above.
He told reporters that the first thing a diver considers when doing an operation is the weather.
“Safety is the Coastguard’s motto. Safety. That is the first thing we will preach on any diving operation, on any mission throughout the Police Force. Safety comes first,” he said.
He said that when he arrived, he spoke with his colleagues who had arrived earlier on Coastguard vessel SVG 11 and three civilian divers who were assisting.
Williams said he invited all of the divers on board his vessel, SVG 03, and gave them a safety brief, having recognised the challenges as soon as he arrived.
He explained that while there were three Coastguard divers at the scene, the Coastguard has a policy of not using a single diver at any one time.
“That is a big no-no and we do not adhere to those kinds of ills in the Coastguard.”
He said that two Coastguard divers and the three civilian divers took the water, and the Coastguard diver who remained on board the vessel keep an eye on the other divers, alerting them of any dangers.
Williams told reporters that the divers got into “the treacherous water” and realised that the height of the waves were very challenging
“The current was very strong, the visibility was very poor, [and] at least in the outside part of the deep, visibility was about 10 feet. “As we got in closer to the rocks, we realise that … for life, and the possibility of getting life threatening injuries, that we could not have passed that point where the waves were crashing on the rocks.
“You standing here, sitting here, and listening could not have seen below to know what the bottom conditions were like. Huge boulders, caves, sharp rocks,” he said at the press conference which was attended by Acting Commissioner of Police Reynold Hadaway, Coastguard Commander Brenton Cain and other senior members of the Police Force.
“So here the waves were breaking and crashing into shore; that is the furthest we could have gone. There were no local divers, no Coastguard divers who have been seen or who have gone into that part of the treacherous water,” Williams said.
He said the divers searched the outskirts and retrieved several items, including seven or eight bags — mostly school bag, some of which continued clothes and some of which were empty.
Some of them contained personal electrical gadgets, cash, shoes and other items and were placed on the Coastguard vessel, the Master Diver told reporters.
He said one of the Coastguard divers was experiencing cramps and was taken on board. “We had a call going around saying on the social media that one Coastguard diver is missing. That was not the case.”
He said that as the search continued, the divers saw a body in the water, which appeared to be that of a male.
The waves brought the body close to the rock and the persons on shore rushed up and retrieved it from the water, Williams said.
“But nobody would have actually gone, from the shore or from the sea, to what I would call a basket environment of stone,” Williams said.
“That is the only body I saw that was retrieved there, while there. I did not see any other body floating whether outside or inside that area and there was no one that needed the coastguard assistance for lifesaving. We were basically there to retrieve — I don’t want to say here because of the person who are here [who are] mourning — dead bodies,” Williams said, and expressed condolences to the relatives of the victims of the tragedy.
Among the persons at the press briefing was Station Sergeant of Police detective Hezron Ballantyne, whose daughter is one of the two persons who are missing and presumed dead.
Williams said that having seen the bodies, he was trying to be “as discreet as I possibly can in mentioning certain things”.
He said the divers stayed in the water almost throughout “that period of the morning” and the waves and the current were getting stronger.
He said he decided to call the divers together to discuss the situation.
“The local guys (civilian divers) were the first ones that said look, this water is getting terrible and we need to get out.
“I came to a decision [based] on safety, even though I know the nature of how the person are feeling ashore. I’ve been through this many times, where persons believe that someone is still alive under the water. And to speak to those persons, I cannot comprehend or begin to think how to talk.
“It is something traumatising and I don’t know who can deal with that to speak with somebody who wants their loved ones back and you may know something otherwise.
“But I am not the professional to pronounce somebody dead, but I was only there to retrieve [bodies] as the environment and the situation [permitted].
“So, we came to a decision [based] on safety [considerations], because we were beginning to get pulled ashore. So, rather than actually trying to search, we were actually trying to swim. So, in essence, you cannot search when you are trying to rescue yourself,” Williams said.
He said the decision to abandon the dive was unanimous.
He said the surface search on board SVG 03 continued and the divers thought that the seas would have subsided with time.
That, however, was not the case, as waves continued to crash against the rock so hard that they were soaking persons ashore.
“There was no one who could have gone there and lived to tell the tale, basically,” Williams said, using the effect of the waves on the van that crashed into the sea to illustrate his point.
“If you noticed, a van is made of iron and steel, and it was ripped apart; compare [that] to a human body.”
Williams gave his professional opinion on what might have happened to the bodies.
“… after about the third day or so, … the body would have floated if, let say, if the torso is not damaged or punctured.
“… the environment poses a dangerous situation where — I don’t want to say it because of the persons here who are mourning — the bodies would have been ripped apart. There is a great possibility.
“I have seen it over and over in my 18 years in the Coastguard. I have retrieved numerous bodies, numerous bodies,” Williams said.
He said that as the divers searched the surface of the water they did not see anything else floating or any bodies in the water column.
He said that civilian divers were tired and asked to be taken to Owia, but he returned to the scene and did not leave until dark, as instructed.
“I did not eat a bite on that day in my wet clothes, me and my team that entire day,” Williams said.
He said that the sea had not subsided on the second day either.
“The van was actually torn to pieces like a piece of toilet tissue in a toilet.”
He said that on Sunday he was at home on leave and was summoned to the Coastguard Base on a report that a fisherman had seen what appeared to be a human limb floating in the water.
Williams said he responded immediately and was dispatched to the area, where he met another vessel that communicated the same information about the limb.
Williams said he conducted a dive from one end of the harbour to the other in Owia where the limb was reportedly seen.
“There was a lot of trash, seaweed, trunk, that, in my opinion, easily could have been mistaken for a limb,” he said of the conditions on the seafloor.
“I could have missed it as well, if there was a limb, because of the amount of trash that was there. I checked that entire bay and every now and again came up to get his bearing,” he said, adding that he searched a second time an area a gentleman pointed out to him.
“I did not see anything resembling any part of a human body or anything resembling a human limb floating or submerged,” the diver said.
The police high command say that their search for the two missing student still continues.
The five students will be buried in Fancy on Sunday.