There was no ambulance on Union Island last week Tuesday night, May 19, when three residents, all of who suffered first, second and third degree burns about their bodies in a gas station explosion and subsequently died.
Further, the principal vessel in the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Coast Guard fleet took over an hour to decide to transport two of the victims to Kingstown, even as they were lying in the back of pick-up trucks.
Ashley C. John, a resident of the Southern Grenadines island who has training in first response and disaster management, used Facebook Life on Sunday — after the first victim died — to detail what happened to the victims in the hours immediately after the fire.
He spoke of how civilians, some of them trained in first aid, helped the doctor and nurse on the island to transport the victims from the health care facility to the Coast Guard vessel that transported them to Kingstown.
Police have launched an investigation into the 6:40 p.m. explosion that has claimed the lives of Freddy Naert, 72, the owner of Freddy’s Gas Station, and Union Island Secondary School students, Lindani Neverson, 14, and Graniqua “Zara” Alexander, 17.
Naert and Neverson died on Sunday at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital (MCMH), SVG’s main health care facility, located in Kingstown.
Also on Sunday, Alexander was taken from the MCMH and flown to Trinidad, where she died Wednesday night.
Police said the fire took about five hours to contain and steam continued to be emitted from the ground up to 10 hours after the blaze which destroyed the gas station and several other buildings.
In his Facebook Live commentary, John said that he did not recognise near the scene of the fire any official of Kingstown-headquartered National Emergency Management Organisation.
No command centre was set up except in the actual Clifton Clinic where the victims were taken, the said.
“And Nurse Jones and the other nurses did a really good job in putting together a small command centre there at that clinic.”
John said that a call was made between 7 and 7:30 p.m. for the Coast Guard to come to Union Island to assist in transporting the victims to Kingstown, located 40 nautical miles away.
“The first Coast Guard vessel was there, which was one of the small ones, which could have only taken one single person. And in triage or emergency care you would, obviously take the most critical person first.”
The coast guard vessel was a rigid hull inflatable interceptor vessel that could have accommodated only one of the patients in addition to its crew.
The decision was made to send Alexander first.
“The other thing that had me is that there was no ambulance at that hospital, none… so we had to use the back of the police transport to remove the young lady and there are some things I really can’t keep quiet about any more. I was quiet the whole week but this thing is just affecting me internally,” John said.
“I would have expected that in a case like this that a clinic, a hospital, would be equipped with certain stretchers and backboards and so on that has straps and pads for the neck.
“These things are not there at Clifton, Union Island and it is not fair to the citizens. It is not fair to the nurses and the doctors to ask them to provide emergency medical care without the proper equipment that is supposed to be there. And the things I am talking about are basic emergency response equipment.
“… That ain’t rocket science that needs a specialist to do. These things are basic and this is 2020 and none of that is here at that Clifton clinic.
“They have one stretcher and to me that needs replacing. I am saying it now. It needs replacing…
John said he understands that the ambulance that usually services Union Island was in St. Vincent at the time of the explosion.
“That is another thing that should not be. There are enough ambulances on the mainland in St. Vincent that if they have to bring one up for maintenance or whatever, they send down one from the mainland while the one in Union Island is coming up on the same ferry. Because you don’t know what would occur in the night, you don’t know what would occur as an emergency.
“… You are putting patients in the back of police vehicles — I am talking about these four wheel drives that are not equipped to carry patients and I have been saying for the longest time to stop doing this.
“None of the Grenadine islands should be without an ambulance because of the fact that it is not easy to get to the mainland from Union Island. It is a very long trip so the medical care you can provide to that patient before moving to the mainland, you have to have the adequate resources to do that.”
John said it appears that no efforts were made to have the three patients airlifted to St. Vincent.
“Thank God the doctor and the nurses stood the course of the entire night and I recall when we were taking down the young lady and it was thanks to all of the young men, the orderly and the health inspector who jumped in…”
He said that when they arrived at the jetty, they were able to put Alexander aboard the vessel in minutes.
They then had to wait for the Capt. Hugh Mulzac, a 140-foot vessel commissioned in January 2019, to come from SVG.
The Capt. Hugh Mulzac arrived between 11:30 and 11:45 p.m., John said, noting that the call for the vessel went out at 7 p.m.
He further pointed out that there were two patients at the clinic to transport to the jetty and one police pickup truck.
A civilian who had a pickup truck agreed to assist, John said.
“Understand [that] we had to put oxygen together, IV lines and everything and we had to move these patients on the back of a vehicle… which the stretcher was actually overriding.
“So we had to leave the tailgate down and while we were driving, we had people holding the stretcher with their hands and with their feet and so on so it won’t slide back. We all helped. One hand in the air with the CV line, your foot helping to keep the stretcher on board on that vehicle because we did everything that we could to help these people.”
John said that what distressed him the most was what happened when they got to the jetty to deliver the two patients to the Coast Guard vessel.
“To our surprise, when we got to the vessel and we were ready to lift and so on, we were stopped from entering the Coast Guard vessel … with the patients.
“We couldn’t move them from the two vehicles and I tell you — and I am saying this for the record — they had some meeting on that vessel and we were on that jetty for over an hour until the people of Union Island started to cuss and carry on — and remember it arrived at 11:45.”
He said that Nurse Jones went on board the Coast Guard vessel to brief the officers.
“… it seems to me, and this is my opinion, that they did not even want to listen to her and they requested that the doctor would come down to the jetty,” he said, adding that the doctor had to drive down to the jetty.
“… and all of this time this is happening, these patients are there on the back of those open back vehicles. Burn victims. They were right there on these vehicles. I was sitting with Fred and others were sitting with the young boy.”
John said he was pleased with island for raising noise in protest over the delay.
He said he understands that it had to take the intervention of the Director of Grenadines Affairs and the ruling Unity Labour Party’s caretaker for the Southern Grenadines, Edwin Snagg to resolve the issue so the patients could be loaded onto the Coast Guard vessel.
“In an emergency,” John said. “And these things should not happen. This should never happen.”
“Why are we not handling disasters better, why are we not co-ordinating disasters better with the aim of saving lives?
“I commend the first Coast Guard vessel. Within minutes, they were off from that jetty. I don’t know what happened with the main vessel. I thought their response would have been even better. I just don’t understand what is happening.
“Why in 2020 you are getting this type of health care and every time you want to speak about these things, people want to come to you with nonsense about politics. This is nothing to do with politics. This is about quality healthcare that our nation’s citizens should receive especially when it comes to emergencies and disasters. Nurses and doctors should not be subjected to this form of stress,” he said.
He asked why SVG did not arrange with Carriacou, which is 15 minutes away, to have the Grenada Coast Guard vessel stationed there help with the medevac.