Imagine hearing from thousands of miles away that your teenaged son was involved in a freak accident; more precisely, an explosion completely out of left field, while working on site at a local quarry where he’d been employed for just six months. That was the earth-shattering reality for an unsuspecting mother. For some time now she had been chasing greener pastures overseas. Her kids were with their father, also a quarry worker. The shocking news had sent her packing her suitcase. She took the first flight out to Saint Lucia. Nothing was more important than being at the side of her 18-year-old son, and his father who, it turned out, had also been seriously injured in the blast.
Flashback to March 21, 2017, and the late afternoon explosion at the quarry operated by Rayneau Construction Limited. Reports after the incident confirmed that three men were dead, roughly 20 others injured. Victims were rushed to Victoria Hospital where the full complement of doctors, nurses, and other support staff responded as best they could to the mass causality situation, albeit with the usual limited resources. Outside the hospital a crowd gathered; distraught family members waiting for updates, security personnel and police officers doing what they could to maintain order, and a sea of the usual morbid onlookers taking pictures soon to end up on Facebook. A sprinkling of news-hungry media hovered around the hospital compound.
Actually the media reported very little in relation to the explosion, for legal and other reasons. Four of the more severely injured were flown to Martinique for attention not locally available. Almost nothing was heard from the quarry operators. When finally they issued a press statement it was only to say: “At this stage we give our unwavering support and cooperation to the investigators as they assist and support us in finding out the cause of this unfortunate accident.”
An emergency press conference followed on March 22, convened by The National Emergency Management Organisation. On hand to take questions were the Chief Fire Officer Joseph Joseph, NEMO Director Velda Joseph, Chief Medical Officer Dr Merlene Frederick, and Acting Police Commissioner Milton Desir. The Rayneau Group of Companies was unrepresented.
Joseph promised that as soon as relevant information was received the press would be notified. The fire chief also related that the fire service had not transported any casualties after the incident. Upon their arrival at the quarry all injured parties were already on their way to hospital, save for the bodies of two men with no vital signs. Investigations were continuing, said Joseph, in the face of speculations about the cause of the explosion, into the storage of potentially hazardous materials at the site. In the days ahead there would be all kinds of questions from callers to radio and TV shows about poor safety standards that may have contributed to the tragedy.
One by one, the fatalities were laid to rest. One of them, Simon Straughn, was reportedly the half brother of the quarry owner. His funeral service at the Castries Cathedral on April 3, 2017 was attended by a large contingent of staff, some wearing specially designed “Team Rayneau” jerseys. Straughn had lost his father when he was only 12, and had been forced to grow up quickly. In the words of Adrian Hyacinth who delivered the eulogy: “For Simon there was no limit, no task too much. Simon was a truly loyal employee who knew the importance of hard work.” He lost his mother when he was 20, married in 2007. He left behind a wife and two children.
On April 16 another victim of the explosion succumbed to his injuries, bringing the death toll to four. Jude Skelly, a Dennery resident in his 40s, had been transported to Martinique for treatment and, according to family, passed away after being in a coma for weeks.
“There’s so much going on,” the distraught mother of an 18-year-old survivor told the STAR. She had called out of frustration. Promises of assistance by the company had failed to materialize.
“My children’s father and my son were working there on the day of the incident,” she said. “My children’s father had been working there for 21 years, and my son had just started working there about six months when the incident happened. I sent him to the office this week and he said a young lady at the office told him they were only going to pay his doctor’s bill, they weren’t going to pay him a salary. He has two holes in his eardrums! He needs to keep checking up with the doctor. I have been paying his bills.
“A guy just died in Martinique . . . I think they should at least appoint somebody to deal this case. Hire somebody to keep check on the victims and their families. See how they’re doing, see how they’re recovering . . . these people get injured on the job whether through carelessness and negligence, and then come to find out when they try to get a salary, maybe to get their medication . . . People can be so heartless. They have no idea what people like me are going through.”
A company representative said there had been communication with the affected families. Meanwhile, as they say, “investigations into the incident are ongoing.”