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A sad day indeed!

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Monday was a sad day for our country, but particularly so for the communities of Fancy and Owia. For me, one thing that stands out is the overwhelming and moving prayers and support from people all over the country. I am saddened when I look at the faces of those persons who lost their loved ones and of those who only knew them, but saw them as part of a broader family. What is particularly heart-rending is to know that 14 of the 21 persons in the van that succumbed to the terrible accident were students seemingly between the ages of 11 and 18.{{more}} While we mourn and grieve with the families, we have immediately to assist those who have survived, especially 12-year-old Terril Thomas, whose story of how he survived is truly astounding. He has to be provided with psychological support because of the trauma that he had to endure. Even the thought of knowing he is alive while some of his friends died, is in itself a difficult thing to comprehend. This applies equally to others whose stories we do not yet know.

Looking from a distance, I must compliment the Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment for the manner in which, so far, they have handled the situation, pulling out as they say their ‘mass casualty management plan’. I was particularly pleased with their psychosocial support, as one person described it. Would they have been able to cope with five other patients? They have to bring this into their calculations. It was also heart- warming to see teachers and other education officials offering their support.

While the immediate emphasis is on the survivors and their families and the families of the dead persons, we also have to look ahead and it is certainly not too early to raise matters to which we ought to pay some attention. Although the reasons for the tragedy have not yet been evaluated, we have the words of young Terril who said that ‘the van was coming down good and after it came down the hill, is like the brakes cut away and the van picked up more speed’. This is how he saw it. So, there is no suggestion at this time of any irresponsible driving. But looking forward we need to be on the alert. Tragedies like these will happen and sometimes we have little control over them, but we have to cater to those that arise because of irresponsible behaviour and our negligence. And here, I refer, to minivans on the roads with school children, operating as though they are always racing with time, but with no sense of responsibility, sometimes doing the almost impossible. This is a call for closer monitoring.

What disturbs me in tragedies like this is that quite often the media, including the social media, tend to focus on the personalities around. They do provide as much information as they can about those dead and their grieving families, but it will be good to highlight those young men who braved the rough seas to try and recover bodies or help those who might still have been alive. Let us hear about those who first arrived, including the nurses and police and what they did to help. When we hear or read the harrowing tales of occupants of the van and those who first arrived on the scene, having to contend not only with the wreckage on huge boulders, but also with the raging seas that are so common in that area, we must recognize that these are our heroes, not the crying politician trying to attract attention.

The other comment I want to make is that tragedies like these show that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Fancy and Owia are small closely knit communities where many are related and they know one another. Relatives, children or friends of any of us could have been victims of what transpired. It shows that we are one people and that the things that bind us far outweigh those that divide us. Really, we should not be waiting on tragedies like this to remind us that we are one family. We have to take warning also. In 2013 it was heavy rainfall and the damage it did that brought us together as a people. There are lessons to be learnt, but unfortunately after confronting such issues and demonstrating our human side, we often go back to where we were, selfish and unconnected.

The sense of humanity that emerges on occasions like these needs to be maintained. We have to empathize with those who suffer from such tragedies. Do we understand what it means to a parent or guardian to send their children to school, only to find out soon after that they are no longer with them? Or like the corporal of police in Antigua and Barbuda who was told that his son had died? Parents have hopes for their children, to whom many are, to a large extent, investments. The tragedy has taken place in an area to the extreme north, where many have for so long been marginalized. Parents would have hoped for a bright future for their young ones. Like Keats, I say, ‘perhaps in this neglected spot is laid; some heart once pregnant with celestial fire’. For those who succumbed to the waves, I say too, ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene; the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.’

Monday, January 12, 2015 is a day that we will not easily forget because all of us have been touched by that dreadful tragedy. It was their children, but they were also our children. Their loss is our loss and the nation’s loss. The nation must use tragedies like this to reexamine itself.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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