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Brief recollections about Good Friday 1979

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“The thing split Good Friday in two And that good new morning groaned and snapped
like breaking an old habit (The Volcano Suite – Shake Keane) With the volcano acting up as we say I imagine that many persons, particularly those in the foothills of the volcano, will be thinking about and hoping that on Friday we will not have a repeat of that fateful event, 42 years ago. I was working with the Glebe Development Project in Barrouallie, an undertaking by the Caribbean Conference of Churches and the Christian Council.  It was my responsibility to organise the community and to coordinate development projects.

I lived at Peters Hope, in one of two houses there. The estate was on its last legs. When work stopped at 4pm it was absolutely quiet except for the occasional vehicle passing by. On that eventful morning I was preparing to go to Barrouallie when I thought I heard Don Bobb from Radio 705 say something to the effect that the Soufriere was erupting. I dismissed it and wondered why he would be making such a joke. When I got to Glebe Hill, I realised that the Park was packed with people. It was indeed serious business as I later found out.

I spent part of the day visiting hastily prepared evacuation centres to accommodate the many people who had come from North Leeward.  Most were at the Primary School at the top of the hill and the Secondary School located just past the clinic. Two of the persons I remembered taking charge were BT Markman and Daniel Rawlings. Apart from people telling their stories, nothing unusual seemed to have been happening, so later that afternoon I returned to Peters Hope to take a nap. At about 6:30 I got off my bed only to realise that things had been happening because the floor was pure volcanic ash. I jumped into my car and did something very silly, turning on my wind-screen wiper only to realise that I was dealing with volcanic ash. My only option was to get back into the house and wait until morning to get rid of the muck that made it impossible to see anything.

     There had apparently been an eruption in the late afternoon. It was good with all this gloom and uncertainty to be able to get a laugh. I went to what we called the top school and was given a story that I cannot help telling as often as I can. At that school were some fishermen. During the night one of them went to get water from one of the containers and could not believe himself. He was tasting rum. He told his buddies and next morning the cask which still had the taste of rum was emptied of all its water. Rawlings at first could not figure out how the container with water for persons housed there could have been empty. A group of cadets had gone to Chateaubelair to encourage persons who were still there, to move. One man insisted that nothing could move him. They turned away and within minutes there was a thunder blast. They looked back and the person who said he was not moving was more than 100 yards away.

I remembered going to Belmont where the volcanologists were located. I was shown a huge tank and was told that in the event of an eruption they were supposed to take shelter in it. I was so glad when I left.  On afternoons I went to my hangout at the Fishnet restaurant where Shake Keane was almost a permanent fixture, preparing no doubt his poems that so adequately captured what was happening. There I heard many stories, including one of a senior civil servant who had abandoned his job and took refuge in Barbados. He was later charged, I believe. Loose talk around was that there were many old craters all over St. Vincent and they could erupt at any time.

There was, for some time, a lull in activity and the doctor at Pembroke who was coordinating medical services at the centres invited a few persons to a moonlight picnic at Peters Hope and a get-together at his home after. While at his home someone phoned Nina Maloney at the radio station that had been functioning all night. I remember Nina dedicating tunes to those who were enjoying their late night dancing. Shortly after, I went outside and realised that there was an eruption in progress. It might have been the first one occurring at night. I phoned Nina and she alerted the nation.
     Some effort should be made to collect the many stories that could be told about a period we should never forget.

Some would, I am sure, inform and guide us when we prepare for such eventualities. We will get a glimpse of how people react in situations like this where rational thinking is not the order of the day.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian