Union Island was plunged into deeper mourning early Wednesday evening as news of the death of 17 year-old student Shaniqua “Zara” Alexander made its way around the closely knitted Southern Grenadines community.
Zara was one of three persons who ultimately succumbed to injuries after the Clifton based gas station exploded around 6:40 p.m. on May 19, 2020. Also deceased are Freddy North, the 72 years old gas station owner, and 12 years old Lindani Neverson a fellow student at the Union Island Secondary School.
North and Neverson passed away at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital on Sunday morning even as family members were reported to have been actively seeking financial assistance – going as far as to set up an account on the crowd sourcing platform Go Fund Me – to have the patients airlifted to appropriately equipped health centers. Zara was finally flown to Trinidad sometime on Sunday evening.
ANN was unable to learn of the precise complications that proved to be too much for young Neverson and the senior entrepreneur but we were reliably informed that “the infection in her lungs got the better of Zara,” according to Abdon Whyte.
Whyte, a teacher and close family friend to both of the younger victims, told us exclusively on Wednesday evening that a non-invasive procedure was conducted on Zara to “deal with the infection yesterday [May 26].”
Another Union Islander told ANN that the news of Zara’s passing had a profound effect on the community when he was asked about the prevailing mood on island. “You can hear crying all over through the valleys,” he said while requesting to be anonymously quoted.
The outpouring of grief also brought several inadequacies sharply to the fore that residents are claiming negatively impacted on the burn victims’ lives. Another person told us, “had the government helped to get them out sooner they would have made it. Even the Coast Guard, that very night was carefree. You had to beg them to start the engine to carry the other two persons after the young lady went first.”
This sentiment was supported by Dr. Ashley C. John in an address that was broadcast on his Facebook page last Sunday. John is not a medical doctor but is a trained first responder in Disaster Management situations, amongst other qualifications, and was quick to volunteer his services as the fire raged.
He itemized, amongst a laundry list of things gone awry: the lack of a command center of any sort within the vicinity of the fire, the lack of any ambulance service which resulted in the burn victims having to be transported in the bed of pickup trucks as well as the lack of proper resources to treat the potential infections and possible carbon monoxide poisoning that are known to plague such patients.
Even as he took time to laud the Herculean efforts of the medical care team at the Cliffton Health Centre during that fiery catastrophe, Dr. John made mention of what he qualified as the most disturbing event of the already disastrous evening.
“There is a one hour gap from the first time you get that call to administrating emergency care that is critical to the patient. One hour! And you are waiting on Union Island four/five hours before the Coast Guard got there. It seems to me like no other efforts were made like even an aircraft – some kind of emergency aircraft or something – which could have flown down to Union Island much faster because these are burn victims … and they had to be moved into a specialist part of a hospital immediately and that didn’t happen,” John told his audience on Sunday afternoon.
The mainland based Coast Guard service was delayed in its response. According to Dr. John the vessel arrived around 11:45 pm although the request for urgent medical evacuation was communicated as early as 7/7:30 p.m. To make matters worse the vessel’s captain wasted more precious time at loggerheads with the medical advice being offered by the nursing staff on the scene.
“The part that distressed me the most about that entire night was when we got down to the jetty to deliver the 2 patients to the Coast Guard vessel. To our surprise when we got to the vessel and we were ready to lift [the patients aboard] we were stopped. Right away we were barred from entering the Coast Guard vessel with the patients so we couldn’t move them from the 2 vehicles.
“And I’m saying this for the record. They had some meetings inside of the vessel and we were on that jetty for over an hour; until the people of Union Island started to curse and carry on…. For over an hour and remember they arrived at 11:45. Nurse Jones went on board to try to brief them – it seems to me and this is my opinion – they didn’t want to listen to her,” Dr. John said.
It took the arrival of the attending physician and the rumored intervention of the Director of Grenadines Affairs, Edwin Snagg, to move the process along. Meanwhile the male patients were left to languish on the open back trucks which transported them from the clinic.
That same Sunday afternoon Health Minister Senator Luke Browne appeared in the season premiere of the Asbert News Network interview series dubbed On De Spot. While there, he reported that the COVID-19 travel restrictions enforced in Trinidad and Tobago meant that a conversation between Prime Ministers Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and Dr. Keith Christopher Rowley was necessary to facilitate Zara’s flight to the appropriate health care facility there, several days after she was set ablaze when the gas station exploded.
Senator Browne was also asked to provide an update regarding the promised MedVac vessel as espoused by PM Gonsalves in his March 25 2020 national COVID-19 economic recovery address. Then Dr. Gonsalves announced that his government already committed $700, 000.00 as a deposit on the vessel which was said to have a value upwards of $4M. The estimated time of arrival was set at 3 months.
“I don’t have the details on the MedVac Vessel. I’m curious to find out how different transportation may be on a MedVac vessel versus the Coast Guard vessel which may have been used to bring the persons to the mainland. One of the things we’re working on actively… with a German foundation to see if we could do something about emergency response including with helicopters that would serve between mainland St. Vincent and the Grenadines as required,” he said
In the meantime, “…there is a feeling of neglect, not necessarily on this issue but if certain things were done differently the outcome could have been different,” another resident opined.