Community endures agony of Valentine’s Day tragedy
Pearline 'Pam' Miller's eyes we lled up with tears as she stared at a copy of The Gleaner's front page of February 16, 1999.
The newspaper shared the story of a boat trip that ended in horror. Eight persons, mostly children from Old Harbour Bay, died after the vessel that was returning from Pigeon Island, located some nine miles off the coast of the bay, capsized on Valentine's Day, 20 years ago.
Miller's daughter, Sadee Banton, was one of the six survivors. The horrifying episode has been too much for them to deal with, so much so that they try to block out their memories of February 14, 1999.
This is the first time that both mother and daughter are opening up about the tragedy that remains fresh in their minds two decades later.
"Mi was in a next parish when mi get the call and mi belly bottom burn me so til mi think mi a go dead. Mi belly hurt mi so til. People call mi phone and say she drown and mi start ask if a di sea come in because mi know mi did tell her stay home. Mi run go pon di toilet and mi start bawl fi murder. Den mi get a next call say she alive. When mi reach home and mi see say she really survive, mi glad fi see her so til. When mi see her lie down mi just give her one box and hug her up and say: 'You never hear mi say you must not leave the yard'? Mi happy and mi give God thanks her life spare," a tearful Miller said.
Sadee, who was 12 at the time, had nightmares about the incident for months. Her fear for the sea has grown drastically, and she has also warned her two children against taking a swim in the ocean.
She recalled that on the day of the incident, her little brother, who was three at the time, pleaded with her not to go on the trip to Pigeon Island.
But although she had mixed feelings, she still climbed into the boat, which was called Sylvia.
"We had gone to the cay and cleaned it up and were returning and something went wrong. I think it may have made a wrong turn and tilted and that's how everyone went on one side and just turned right over," she said.
SCREAMS OF TERROR
SCREAMS OF TERROR
Sadee said she has made several trips to Pigeon Island before but she could not swim. On that fateful day, she said she struggled to keep her head above water, and all she could hear were the screams of terror around her.
"One a the time it was me and Latisha left under the boat when it was going down. I couldn't swim and the only thing I could do was take off mommy's big shirt and leave her," she recalled.
Latisha Lewis was one of the eight persons who died. Damion Grant, Kameisha Grant, Nicole Banton, Clunis Stephens, Ricardo Elliot, Robert Johnson, and Oneil McCalla also never made it.
"I couldn't save her as I was struggling to save myself," she said.
In recalling the minutes that followed, Sadee paused, sighed and stared into space as she explained how a good Samaritan died in order to spare her life.
"While I was in the water, I saw the owner of the boat, Clunis Stephens, who gave me a bottle that they used to store the gas. He told me to hang on it and it will keep me afloat. I remember him clearly saying: 'Sadee, use this and save yourself because I don't know what I am going to tell the people say about them pickney weh drown. Sadee, you must tell them exactly what happen because I know you mouth sharp'. That is the same oil bottle that was used to save three of us. One of the guys was a swimmer so he held on to it and swam, and dragged us along, and that's how we reached to a life buoy and we climbed up on it."
"He didnt make it and I never got a chance to tell him thanks," she said of Clunis.
She told The WEEKEND STAR that a harsh memory that will forever remain in her mind were the last words of her best friend and cousin, Nicole, who pleaded with her to get to safety before it was too late.
"When I had the bottle, before I saw the rest of guys, I saw my cousin, Nicole, and I was trying to go back to her and she said: 'No Sadee, don't come back in the crowd because two bredda pickney can't drown one time. I can still hear the noise and screaming. The eight of them that were one place, it was them that died. About half an hour later, I knew everyone had died because the noise had stopped, rain stopped falling, the heavy breeze had subsided, and the sea got really calm," she said.
For years, Banton kept a sweet and a snack that was given to her by her cousin on the day of the accident as memorabilia. She has also written down the horrifying experience in a diary.