The SVG Coastguard has been “in the line of fire” after the Rock Gutter bus crash which claimed the lives of seven students on Jan. 12, but most of the criticism is “unjustifiable”, Coastguard Commander Brenton Cain told a press conference this week.
Some persons have said that the Coastguard did not do enough to retrieve the bodies of the students, who lost their lives when a minivan crashed into the sea.
Two of the students are still missing at sea and presumed dead, and Master Diver Petty Officer Lennon has suggested that it is highly unlikely that their bodies will be recovered.
“The Coastguard has been in the line of fire and I must say most of it, if not all of it, is unjustifiable,” Cain told a police press conference this week.
He said the Coastguard received a call about the accident around 7:45 on Jan. 12 from Lieutenant Commander Deon Henry who was at the time in Barbados undergoing training.
“Subsequently, we received a call from the police control — I think it was five minutes after — and the Coastguard was deployed four minutes to eight that morning to go and try to do their best with regards to the saving of lives,” Cain said.
He said that the vessel took 45 minutes to reach the site of the accident, which is located on the north-eastern tip of St. Vincent.
Cain told journalists that a second Coastguard vessel was deployed at 9:15, “after the information we received summoned that a dive operation should take place — because the first information we received was sketchy”.
Cain said that while Lieutenant Ralphie Raguette was in charge of the entire operation, Williams was in charge of the dive aspect.
“Listening to some of the radio stations [and] social media saying that Coastguard has no divers, they are not trained, Mr. Williams is a master diver. He was trained with the US Navy for close to a year, nine months plus. … He, I think — I might be wrong — is one of the top divers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines when it comes to qualification. His advice [on that] day, as the Coastguard Commander — because I am not a diver, I go on his advice. Safety was the paramount,” Cain said.
“You can’t save somebody when you are dead, obviously, and judging from the information that I received from P.O. Williams, the operations were centred around that,” Cain said.
The sea at Rock Gutter, located on the Atlantic side of St. Vincent, which is characterised by large waves and dangerous undercurrents, was especially rough on Jan. 12, with waves splashing water on the roadside.
Meanwhile, Raguette said that the Coastguard deployed a quick response crew within four minutes of receiving the call about the accident.
“The initial information was sketchy…” he said, adding that the response was in keeping with the Coastguard’s policy on dealing with any situation at sea.
Raguette said the Coastguard communicated with the police stations in the area to have personnel on land to coordinate with the Coastguard.
Raguette said that the police on land provided further information regarding the status of the minivan that had plunged into the sea.
“From his information and the assessment of the information received from him, … there were five to six persons still missing, who were still in the water,” Raguette said.
“… [Because of] the wave action, it was impossible for us to approach from sea,” he said, adding that before Williams’ team was dispatched he (Williams) was told that they might have had to approach from land if it was impossible to approach from sea.
Raguette said that at 9:35 a.m., after the master diver arrived and the situation was assessed, they briefed the Coastguard divers, as well as two civilian divers who were assisting in the effort.
Raguette said the Coastguard and civilian divers entered the water and dove as close as possible to where the surf was breaking.
He, however, said that the currents made it “futile” for them to get close to the rocky shore.
“The information and feedback received was that it was impossible for anyone to enter the sea based on the sea conditions,” Raguette said.
“From there on, most of our search was conducted mainly on surface search,” Raguette said in an attempt to put things into clearer perspective.
“… at the time we got on the scene, from the time we received the information, the information received [is that] there were no moving bodies in the water. There was no saving of lives, it was more of recovering [of] bodies,” he said.
He said the second vessel that was deployed had on board what is needed for saving lives and the recovery of bodies.
“The time we got there, there was only recovering of bodies. The sea conditions prevented that, to some extent. That is why the Coastguard concentrated their operation on more surface search for the bodies.
Biology of drowning
“If I may say, the biology of drowning indicates [that] within in our waters, the tropical waters region, if a [person] drowns, we have … 48 hours to 72 hours before the body sinks and floats [again].
“And that depends on several factors also,” he said, adding that if the body is damaged, this could affect whether it floats.
Raguette also said that the Coastguard has a policy that speaks to the safety of its officers even as they try to save lives.
We don’t just go on the scene and jump in the water,” he said.
“We understand the whole concept of wanting to save lives, but at the end of the day, if we are unable to save your live, we wouldn’t be able to save the life of the person in distress,” he said, adding that such a policy is not unique to the SVG Coastguard.
“A briefing is necessary, and the right person was there on scene, which is the master diver, who … briefed them, even the locals, as to what is expected, because we wouldn’t want a situation where the person who is attempting to save a life or recover a body puts themselves in a situation where they are unable to save themselves or find themselves in distress,” Raguette said.
“So, there are certain things that we have to meet in order for that to happen,” he said, adding that a number of persons didn’t follow the safety guidelines in respect of recovering the bodies.
“We pride ourselves as the Coastguard in responding to a situation and recovering positively. We pride ourselves in that. It is what we live on. Our motto, we live by our motto, in terms of dedicated to saving lives at sea,” Raguette said.
The search for the two missing students continues.
The other five will be buried in Fancy on Sunday.