By Kenton X. Chance
On Jan. 12, Danny Michael, a 14-year-old resident of Fancy, left his home around 6:40 a.m. for school, as he does on any regular school day.
He never arrived at school that day, and seven of his fellow students will never attend classes ever again.
With time, the fourth form student of North Union Secondary School would be celebrated for his bravery in the face of unspeakable horror — especially for someone of his age.
Danny bid farewell to his mother, Wendy Michael, and, along with 18 other students in his villagers — mostly descendants of this country’s sole National Hero, Joseph Chatoyer, who is celebrated for his valour — boarded “The Red Van” that had faithfully taken them to and from school day after day.
Three adults — the driver, conductor, and a nurse — were also on board.
The van, HL 636, was owned by Fancy Apostolic Faith Mission and, understandably, the music being played was Bridgette Blucher’s timeless gospel songs.
Those songs would come to cause Danny disquiet, rather than comfort.
As the hands of the clock marched up to 7:45 that morning, Ms Michael must have assumed that her son would have been in school already.
If she had given thought to it, she might have also assumed that the sole student on board who attended classes in Kingstown would have been near his campus by that time also.
But then the telephone rang.
It was her daughter-in-law, Danny’s older brother’s wife, on the other end, summoning her to their Soldier Hill, Fancy home.
“She said to me, ‘Daniel said the red van turn over’,” Ms Michael, who lives at Dry River, Fancy, told I-Witness News on the sidelines of an event in Fancy on Feb. 22 to commemorate the 40th day of the tragedy.
Within hours, a similar message would resonate across St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the date January 12, 2015, and the horror and pain that it has come to represent, would be scorched into the collective memory of all Vincentians.
“So I get up and I start screaming and alerting everybody, because I know is school children it (the van) is carrying,” Ms Michael said.
“When I reached up Solider Hill, my son, Danny, he was sitting first and when he saw me, he run come to me and said, ‘Mommy, oh God, ‘Blacka’ dead; Black dead, Mommy.”
Blacka was the play name of Jamalie Edwards, Danny’s best friend and cousin.
By the end of the day, Jamalie, 14, his younger brother, Jamall Edwards, 12, and three other students would be confirmed as having died when minibus plunged down a roadside cliff and into the raging Atlantic Ocean at Rock Gutter, an uninhabited stretch of road between Fancy and Owia in north-eastern St. Vincent.
Two other students are missing at sea and presumed dead.
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In the aftermath of the tragedy, a story began to take form about a “little boy” who had jumped out of the bus before it plunged into the sea and had ran/swam back to Fancy to seek help.
The boy is, in fact, Danny, but in an interview with I-Witness News, his mother peeled away the myths to reveal the true story of yet another, and possibly the most important unsung hero at Rock Gutter that day.
Ms Michael told I-Witness News, that Danny, having broken the news of the tragedy to his family, told her not to go to Rock Gutter, saying, “It is too dangerous.”
He was bleeding and needed to be taken to the clinic, but the health centre in Fancy was closed. The next option was Owia, which meant that they had to pass Rock Gutter.
“All the way we are going, he said to me, ‘Mommy, don’t watch, don’t watched down there (scene of the accident),” Ms Michael said, adding that Danny told her that he was not going to look because he was scared.
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When they arrived in Owia, she asked her son what happened earlier that fateful day.
“He said to me, ‘When we almost reach to the middle of the hill, it seems as if the vehicle slowed down and then it picked up a great speed. And the children began to scream.’ But he said, ‘I wasn’t frightened; I was watching the driver.’ And he said the driver was trying to turn the angle (corner), but they hit on something. What they hit, he don’t remember, but the van went up into the air,” Ms Michael recalled.
Police are yet to release a report on the incident, but the van is believe to have struck a utility pole at the side of the road before plunging into the sea.
“And he said, ‘All the time, I think we were still up in the air, not knowing that we came down, until water hit me in the face,” Ms Michael said, recounting what her son told her.
She said Danny thought he was dreaming, but realising that the experience was real, he swam out of the vehicle.
The broken glass gashed him on his feet, ankle, face, and head.
Police have also not disclosed the cause of death of the seven students, but media reports say that one of them drowned and another died of a broken neck.
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Based on what Danny told his mother, all 21 persons on board the van were still inside when it landed in the sea.
“And he said, ‘Mommy, it (the sea) was real rough and I did my best. If only the water was calm, I could have saved everyone…
“He said, ‘Mommy, it was raging.’ He said he never saw seawater angry so,” Ms Michael recalled.
Condieann Sterling, one of Danny’s cousins, was the fist person Danny rescued.
He placed her on of the many rocks that line the shore at Rock Gutter.
She survived the ordeal.
While swimming in the water, Glenroy Michael, 16, and Simonique Ballantyne called out for help and Danny was swimming toward then, when a large wave came in.
The two students disappeared, and Michael’s body was later retrieved from the water, and Ballantyne is missing and presumed dead.
Danny told his mother that he saw Olando Lewis trying to make his way to the shore, but he (Danny) encouraged him to swim out into the open.
Lewis also survived.
Danny pushed on to the rock, and to safety the persons that he could have.
“But he said, ‘How much? I d not know. And who? I do not know’,” Ms Michael told I-Witness News.
When Danny went back to the van, he saw Jamal Edwards. Jamal was halfway out of the vehicle.
“And he said, ‘Mommy, when I going and I stretched my hand to help pull him out, a swell came and took him from me and I did not see him again. So I assume that he is dead also.’”
Jamal’s body was retrieved from the water that day.
Danny told his mother that he saw Anique Alexander between the van and the rocks.
“He said to me, ‘I know Annique was dead, because Annique was bleeding. And he said, ‘When I saw Annique’s blood, I decided I had to come out the water’,” Ms Michael told I-Witness News, recounting her conversation with her son.
Alexander, 11, also died in the ordeal.
Ms Michael said her son told her that the only persons he knew to have been alive when he decided to get out of the raging sea were student Terril Thomas, and Ravannan Nanton, the bus driver, both of while survived.
“He said to me, ‘Mommy, all the others, I think they will die, because they can’t swim,” Ms Michael said.
Her son also told her that he saw Chanstacia Stay on the hood of the van, but doesn’t know what happened to her after.
Stay, 15, also died.
“Since the incident, he is coping well, I think,” Ms Michael told I-Witness News of her son.
“The first three weeks, he didn’t go to school, but the fourth week, he was ready, because he said to me he was ready to go back. He went back to school and I think he is doing well,” the mother said.
Danny has been receiving counselling from state-employed professionals, both in Fancy and at his school.
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Ms Michael said that Danny doesn’t want to talk about the tragedy and what he witnessed that day and did not attend the 40 Days observation where his mother gave the interview.
“So I won’t talk to him about anything concerning that — only if he asks a question,” she said.
Two days before the interview, Danny told his mother that he doesn’t like to hear the songs by Bridgette Blucher, because those were the songs that were being played in the day that the tragedy occurred.
“He says when he hears them the whole scenario replays in his head,” Ms Michael told I-Witness News.
Ms Michael, a retired educator, cares for elderly persons in Fancy under the state-run “Home Helpers” initiative.
Every week, she relives the events of Jan. 12, 2015.
“Every Monday morning since the thing happened, around that time I would just get the feeling. And all I find myself saying, ‘Around this time [on] the 12th I thought my son was in school. I didn’t know he was in water trying to save himself and trying to save others.’”
Ms Michael told I-Witness News that she thinks the other students who survived the ordeal are coping well.
“I think they are getting there also.”
She is related to all of them.
“So when I meet them, … I usually hug them and hold them close, [and] they will smile. I think they are coping, because the majority of them are back in school.”
And as for Danny, “On morning time he is excited to get up. I don’t have to wake him. He will get up and get himself ready and he will say, ‘Mommy, I gone’, as usually.”
(Editor’s note: Some members of Danny Michael’s family did not want his photo published.)