TRAGEDY AT ROCK GUTTER BY DR. THE HON. RALPH E. GONSALVES

January 15, 2015 by  
Filed under World Vincy News

(ADDRESS TO THE NATION, JANUARY 15, 2015)

Fellow Vincentians,

On the morning of January 12, 2015, a terrible tragedy occurred at Rock Gutter, located almost half-way between the rural villages of Fancy and Owia on the northeast of St. Vincent. A mini-bus carrying twenty-one persons, eighteen of whom were students on their way to secondary schools at Georgetown, North Union, and Kingstown, careened off the road and went over a precipice into the raging sea. The other persons aboard the mini-bus were the driver, the lessee of the mini-bus who doubled up as conductor, and nurse. Everyone on the vehicle boarded it at Fancy.

This tragedy has claimed the lives of five teen-aged students; two other of their colleagues are still missing at sea. The fourteen who survived the accident were immediately hospitalised. Since then seven of them, thus far, have been discharged from the hospital. Those who have survived, the entire village of Fancy especially all the grieving families, the students and staff at the Georgetown Secondary School, the North Union Secondary School, and the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Grammar School, and the nation as a whole, at home and abroad, are pained and anguished.

Everywhere in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the faces of men, women, and students are strained and anxious, devastated at our loss, yet thankful to Almighty God for his mercies. We look to Him as the bountiful source of Grace, in whom Hope, Faith, and Love abundantly, and inexhaustibly, reside. We are before our God imploring Him to accord us His healing hand, to strengthen us, to bind us together with cords that cannot be broken, and to redeem us with His saving grace. We do not and cannot understand everything that our Lord divines, but we know, by reason and faith, that He loves us and He will see us through this excruciatingly painful night into light. Of this we are absolutely sure; and it is this which provides us the solace and the strength required for our healing and our recovery.

Solemnly we recall first the names of the students who are dead and those who are missing. Their names must be forever etched in our collective memory as a fitting memorial which no grave nor time can ever extinguish. Our young ones who are dead are:

  • Jamalie Edwards and his brother Jamall of the North Union Secondary School;
  • Racquel Ashton of the Georgetown Secondary School;
  • Glenroy Michael of the St. Vincent Grammar School;
  • Anique Alexander of the North Union Secondary School.

Our beloved who are missing are:

  • Chanstacia Stay of the North Union Secondary School; and
  • Simonique Ballantyne of the Georgetown Secondary School.

We are in especial solidarity with the grieving parents of the students who are dead and missing. By name they are Jemma Edwards and Lenroy John and Desserand Stay; Junior Bowens and Rochelle Ashton; Gloridene Hoyte-John; and Glenroy Michael; Metheline Alexander and Ezekiel Glasgow; Nelsia Stay and Dalton Chance; Hesron Ballantyne and Simone Ballantyne.

As a grateful nation, we rejoice that fourteen of our fellow-citizens survived this horrible tragedy; eleven of them are students and three are adults. By name the surviving students are:

  • Onique Michael;
  • Christie Bowens;
  • Odesia Stay;
  • Teyahna Bowens;
  • Terril Thomas;
  • Israel Roberts;
  • Ruthann Bowens;
  • Orlando Lewis;
  • Shemroy Yorke, all of the North Union Secondary School; and
  • Candi-Ann Sterling of the Georgetown Secondary School.

The three adults who survived are:

  • Ehud Myers, the conductor;
  • Ravannan Nanton, the driver; and
  • Sherlon Hoyte, a nurse.

They and their families continue to be in our prayers.

Tragedies of the kind which has been visited upon us at Rock Gutter, are tests of our nation’s resolve and our faith. On Christmas Eve 2013, near to midnight, thunderstorms and landslides took the lives of twelve of our beloved sons and daughters, and caused horrific damage and loss. With God’s helping hand, we have been rebuilding and recovering. On January 12, 2015, just after the morning’s dawn, seven precious jewels of our present and future, have been taken from us, inexplicably. From this awful tragedy there is the certainty, embedded deeply in our faith and solidarity, that we will be restored and be made much stronger, for a better life and living.

This extraordinary tragedy has brought out the best in us. From early, the exemplary communities of Fancy and neighbouring Owia bonded as one to provide comfort to those in grief and suffering; selflessly and at risk to their own lives in the billowing seas, divers volunteered as part of the search and rescue team spearheaded by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Coast Guard. Promptly and effectively, and with love, the agencies of the State responded to the disaster: The Police and Coast Guard; NEMO and its volunteers; the personnel from the Ministries of Health, Education, and Social Development. Overwhelmingly, they have been performing their duties beyond call within tested structures and systems. Medical doctors, nurses, other medical personnel behind the scenes, ambulance drivers, counsellors, teachers, members of the Police and Coast Guard, and many others, have been rallying commendably, and with purpose. Civil society, including community activists, pastors, and journalists have risen to the occasion. Government and Opposition have been at one.

At the appropriate time, our State agencies will conduct a critical review of their performances to assess their strengths and weaknesses, possibilities and limitations, all with the aim of improving upon the delivery of vital public services at times of emergencies and disasters.

Members of the Government and Opposition have, in one way or another, at one level or another, been engaged in providing support and solidarity to the grieving parents, the community of Fancy, and the survivors. In this, engagement, I single out for special mention the outstanding efforts of the Honourable Montgomery Daniel, the parliamentary representative for North Windward, who has been exemplary in his commitment and dedication to his people. Personally, I have, in practical ways, been in daily communion with the grieving families, the survivors, and the community of Fancy. I have been linking, hands and hearts with them, and supporting the magnificent efforts of Montgomery Daniel.

The search and rescue operation for our two missing students is still continuing. We will persist in this exercise until we find them or until the professionals, in consultation with the families, consider otherwise.

Yesterday, (Wednesday, January 14th), the post-mortem examination was carried out on the deceased students. A tentative date for the funeral has been set for Sunday, January 25th at the Fancy Hard Court. Further announcements on the funeral arrangements would be made. The parents of the deceased students want a single funeral service and burial ceremony. The parents have requested the services of the New Haven Funeral Home. The Cabinet Secretary, acting under my instructions, have been interfacing with the families, Mrs. Da Silva of “New Haven”, and all other interested parties on the funeral arrangements; she will continue to do so.

Parliament, which was due to meet on Monday, January 12th for the Governor General’s Throne Speech and my Budget Address, was postponed; Parliament will now meet on Wednesday, January 28th at 4:00 p.m., after the funeral. The Appropriation Bill, 2015 is expected to be enacted within the constitutional time-frame, following the usual Budget Debate. The Estimates for 2015 have already been accorded parliamentary approval in keeping with the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

From yesterday (Wednesday January 14th), the flags are being flown at half-mast until further notice. A Day of National Mourning will soon be announced. I have been in consultation with the families on this matter. Last night at a large “Third Night” gathering at the Fancy Government School, the community accepted a suggestion that such a declaration ought not to be made before the two missing students are found or the search and rescue operation is called off.

At that gathering in Fancy last night (Wednesday, January 14th) the site for a new cemetery in Fancy was selected. All the requisite formal and procedural arrangements are being made to give practical effect to this selection and to have the site consecrated, hopefully, prior to the funeral on Sunday, January 25th.

At the gathering in Fancy last night, on behalf of the Government, I made several solemn commitments to the families of all the students who were in the minibus, and to the surviving students in respect of their care, comfort, and education, right up to the university level. I will announce these measures in Parliament, shortly, at the appropriate time.

Regarding the survivors who are still hospitalised, our government will spare no expense or effort in respect of their medical treatment in St. Vincent and the Grenadines or abroad, if necessary. Our entire nation is so happy that they are alive and is quite anxious to see them restored to full health, as soon as practicable.

Arrangements, too, are being made for a replacement school-bus to transport the students from Fancy. It is expected that a replacement school-bus, on an interim basis, will be on the road from Monday, January 19th. Our government itself is ordering, for permanent operations, a new school bus which will be managed through the Ministry of Transport. We expect to have the new school-bus in the shortest time possible.

Meanwhile, the Counselling Centre which has been established at the Seventh Day Adventist Church at Fancy will continue its magnificent work. So, too, the one set-up at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital. The Ministries of Health, Education, and Social Development are collaborating on this matter. The healing process will be a difficult and challenging one, requiring the utmost skill, care, and attention.

The Police have commenced, and are continuing, the investigation into the accident.

Fellow-citizens, there has been an outpouring of love and solidarity from governments, institutions, and individuals from the Caribbean and across the world. Several Prime Ministers of CARICOM member-countries have telephoned me personally to express condolences and to pledge their support and solidarity. Churches across the region are conducting religious services and prayer sessions for the grieving and hurting families, and lifting us all before God. I have been advised that on Sunday, January 18th, at church services at Westminster Cathedral in London and at the Vatican in Rome, there will be remembrances for St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the victims of the tragedy. Our West Indies T-20 Cricket Team in South Africa offered their solidarity. We thank all our friends in the region and globally for their love and kind consideration. It means a lot to us.

Above all, we know that whatever the future brings, our faith will see us through. We know that this long night of weeping will pass; it will not endure forever. Our promised joy cometh in the morning as we bond with our God and with each other enduringly.

On behalf of the government and people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and on my own behalf, I reiterate my declaration of profound condolences to the families of our deceased and missing students. Please know that we love you dearly; your personal loss will not be in vain. Our solidarity and love go out, too, for the survivors and their families. As a nation we will be with you, always. I want you to know that I will be with you; you are in my heart and my mind. I love you. We will all heal, together.

As we renew our faith for the difficult, yet promising, journey ahead, the uplifting words from Psalm 33 are apt in their reassurances:

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
The people he chose for his inheritance.
“—May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord,
Even as we put our hope in you.”

Thank you!

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