By Kenton X. Chance
At the Fancy International Pentecostal Assembly Church last Sunday, the main worship leader knelt on the floor as the congregation and other worship leaders sang.
“No one else will be able to give you that peace of mind than the lord,” she says.
Her name is Simone Ballantyne.
Behind her, sits an elderly gentleman with salt and pepper hair dressed in a dark green suit. His head his bowed, his spectacled eyes closed, his clasped hand between his legs.
His name is Ehud Myers and he is pastor of the Fancy Apostolic Faith Mission Church, located across the street.
As the worship continues, a young man dressed in a blue shirt with a tie — made of the same material as Ballantyne’s dress — and a black waistcoat is busy trying to seat latecomers to the service.
His name is Davanan Nanton.
The presence of Ballantyne, Myers, and Nanton worshipping together seems to demonstrate the theme of the service — “The Power of Togetherness”.
The worship service was held in celebration of the church’s 42nd anniversary.
It came a mere two days after Nanton and Myers were freed of seven counts of involuntary manslaughter, related to an accident two years earlier, in which seven students, including one of Ballantyne’s daughter’s died.
Myers was a guest of honour at the anniversary service for the Fancy International Pentecostal Assembly Church, where Ballantyne and Nanton are members.
But while there was togetherness in the church, elsewhere in the North Windward community, parents of the deceased children were still reeling from the decision of the court to uphold no case submissions the men’s lawyers had made on their behalf.
The seven students — Racquel Ashton, Chanstacia Stay, Glenroy Michael, Jamall and Jamalie Edwards, Simonique Ballantyne and Anique Alexander — died when minibus HL636 careened down a hillside and into the rough sea at Rock Gutter, an uninhabited area between Fancy and Owia.
The bodies of Ballantyne and Stay were never recovered, and, within hours, the seas had shredded the minivan down to its chassis, leaving just three of the wheels intact.
Myers was conductor of on the minivan, which was owned his church, and spent almost two weeks in hospital nursing injuries he sustained in the accident.
Residents of Fancy had asked the church to transport secondary students to school in Georgetown and Kingstown, after a bus specially suited to the terrain that had been secured by the Rotary Club, had developed mechanical problems and was decommissioned.
The club had failed in its efforts to secure duty free concession from the government to provide another bus for the community, the settlement farthest north on St. Vincent’s east coast – located some 36 miles from Kingstown, the nation’s capital.
Nanton was the driver of the van on the fateful day, and notwithstanding his own injuries, went into the sea to rescue his passengers, later needing to be rescued himself, having become weak as a result of blood loss.
In 2015, a coroner’s inquest was held into the accident and the death of the students and based on the evidence compiled during the proceedings, which were closed to the public, Nanton, Myers and Colbert Bowen, a school principal and member of Myers’ church were, in November 2015, charged with seven counts of involuntary manslaughter.
The charges against Bowens were withdrawn at the commencement of the preliminary inquiry last May.
And, after the 10-month preliminary inquiry, which included months-long adjournments, defence counsels Grant Connell and Israel Bruce, argued before Chief Magistrate Rechanne Browne Matthias that the Crown had not made out a case for their clients to answer.
In her ruling at the Serious Offences Court last Friday, the chief magistrate upheld the defence counsel’s submission and told Myers and Nanton that they were free to go.
Gloridene Hoyte-John, Glenroy Michael’s mother, told iWitness News that the decision of the court, however, did not come as a surprise to her.
“I was expecting a dismissal, based on online articles about the no case submission, but I was still hoping that the case would have gone to the High Court,” she said, noting that the grounds of the no case submissions were insufficient evidence.
Hoyte-John told iWitness News that she was looking forward to the case ending up in the High Court because of evidence presented at the inquest.
“The information we received, it was sound. The information regarding the vehicle and the reports from the mechanics who looked at the vehicle,” she said but declined to elaborate.
Rochelle Ashton and her son, Raffique, pose with a photo of her deceased daughter, Racquel at her home in Fancy on Sunday. (iWN photo)Asked at her home in another section of Fancy what she thought about the decision of the court, Rochelle Ashton, Racquel Ashton’s mother, first told iWitness News of how difficult it has been for her since the death of her daughter.
“I don’t have a day I don’t think of her. She was my best friend and everything to me. Without her, my life is not the same,” the grieving mother said.
She said she was surprised by the decision of the court. “It was a real surprise to me. I just can’t see why,” Ashton said.
“I used to say to myself if no justice come, I leave everything in God’s hands and God knows best. That is my opinion because I know to myself my daughter’s life just went that way. And right now, my heart is full of so much pain,” Ashton said and burst into tears.
During the interview in her patio on Sunday, she told iWitness News that she had cried a lot the previous day, after the court ruling.
“Every time I sat down, my daughter was coming back to me. My son and I cried. He said, ‘Mommy, she’s gone.’ He said, ‘Mommy, she’s gone and she can’t come back. Mommy, I’m comforting you but I miss my sister.’”
Ashton had concluded that what occurred on Jan. 12, 2015 was an accident — one that could have been prevented.
“I know it was an accident but I know it was something that could have been avoided because everybody know the van was not working good,” she said, citing an alleged conversation between Nanton and mechanics that reportedly formed part of the evidence that came out during the inquest.
The seven students died when a minivan crashed into the sea at Rock Gutter, where this monument was erected in their memory last month. (iWN photo)Ashton, who is a member of Myers’ congregation, admitted to iWitness News that she had heard before the accident reports that the van was not working properly.
She, however, said she did not want to get into those details and would constrain her comments to what she knows.
“I’m satisfied with the loss of my daughter. As the magistrate made her decision, I can nothing about that.
“My daughter is gone, I know she can’t come back. I’m satisfied and leave everything in God’s hands. All I am asking for is for him to give me strength every day to carry me through.”
She said that since the accident, Nanton or Myers never went to any of the parents and apologise to them for what happened.
“But it’s too late. Because he should have come to us first and say, ‘Sorry, parents’,” Ashton told iWitness News.
“It is easy to forgive but it is hard to forget. And it is something I will never forget: that morning. And right now, I feel down. No one knows how my family and I feel. None of them ever came to us and say, ‘Sorry, parents, for your loss.’”
Ashton and her daughter were members of Myers’ congregation.
But the last time she went to church was the Sunday after Myers was discharged from the hospital.
“The Sunday when Pastor Myers came back to church after the accident, my son and I went to church the Sunday. And when Colbert Bowens asked him (Myers) if he had anything to say, Pastor Myers only talked about himself alone; expressed his feeling about himself alone. And me and my daughter, who was a member of that church, he didn’t even come to me and say, ‘Rochelle, sorry for your loss’,” Ashton said.
“I, as a mother, who was there, my heart was filled with so much pain. And he didn’t even come and say to me, ‘Rochelle, sorry for your loss. Sorry for what happened.’”
Nelsia Stay was shocked by the decision of the court. (iWN photo)At her home at another section of Fancy, Nelsia Stay, mother of Chanstacia Stay, told iWitness News that she was “shocked” by the outcome of the case.
“It’s like seven children and then Davanan and Mr. Myers, especially Davanan, he just walked away a free man. He was just set free,” said Stay, who noted that Nanton was driver of the vehicle and was familiar with it and any problems it might have had.
“I was hoping that Davanan would have gone to High Court and would have spent some time in prison,” Stay said, even as she noted that his going to prison would not bring back the children.
“It would have helped all the parents in getting a sense of justice, that our children lives were not just thrown away like some animals or something,” she told iWitness News.
Stay, a community health aid assigned to the Fancy Clinic, said she was at work when she received news that the no case submissions were upheld.
She was so affected by the news that her superiors decided to give her the rest of the day off.
“My children were just wiping my tears. I just couldn’t cope on that Friday. I was just shattered. That was just so unbelievable. I couldn’t deal with it,” the mother of two other children — an 8-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter — told iWitness News.
She commented on the call by defence counsel, Bruce, for a crash barrier to be erected at the site of the accident.
“That can’t help me with healing,” Stay said.
“Davanan going to jail would have helped me with healing because I would have felt a sense of justice. He being set free, it just opened that wound all again. The healing process had started but it is just as if I have gone back again to square one,” Stay told iWitness News.
“Fancy will never be the same again. Fancy will never be the same again. It will forever be divided,” she said.
Stay’s desire for Nanton to go to prison reflects the extent to which Fancy, once described as a close-knit community, must heal after the tragedy, a point that Ashton acknowledged.
“… it is really a hard situation. I know my daughter was not sick and I never knew that morning she was not going to come back. And when this accident happened, I just imagine what my daughter said to herself. That rings in her ears,” said the mother who said her daughter had told her brother the night before that she no longer wanted to go to school in the van.
Meanwhile, Hoyte-John told iWitness News that she still suffers from sleepless nights as she tries to cope with the death of the older of her children.
“For me, it’s still sleepless nights but I think I am getting there. As a group, there is still a lot of pain,” she said, adding that the bereaved parents communicate often and this helps.
“I would have wanted the case to go to the High Court,” she told iWitness News, adding that it would have been different if a jury had acquitted the accused men.
Hoyte-John suggested that the bereaved parents were considering other legal actions now that the criminal proceedings have ended.
“At this time, we are not into making any rash decision because we are still hurting, paining and crying and all that,” she, however, told iWitness News.
Asked what she hoping to achieve having exhausted all legal options, Hoyte-John said:
“Just a sense of calm, knowing that the vehicle was not working properly and the defendants not coming to the parents and admit.”
However, as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, Hoyte-John told iWitness News that if there is something bigger at work surrounding the death of the children, “whatever it is, it would be revealed in its time”.
Back at the anniversary service at the Fancy International Pentecostal Assembly Church, Minister Gaius Z. Toussaint, a guest speaker, in his sermon, spoke about “The power of togetherness”.
Among those listening to the sermon was detective Inspector Hesran Ballantyne, Simone Ballantyne’s husband and Simonique’s father.
Mr. Ballantyne tells iWitness News that he accepts the decision of the court and sees it as his duty to explain to fellow parents that the court reaches its conclusions based on the evidence presented to it and not based on what is said on the street.
He, however, tells iWitness News that based on his knowledge of the law, the court might have made a different decision had it heard the same evidence presented to the coroner’s inquest.