This terrible tragedy that is referred to as the Christena Disaster ripped the ‘heart’ out of hundreds of families across the channel, leaving many children as orphans and adults as widows and widowers.
The boat was licensed to carry 125 deck passengers, 30 first class, four cabin passengers and a crew of 5. However on that fateful afternoon, the boat was overloaded with almost three hundred (300) passengers. To this day, no one truly knows how many souls were on board because no records were kept to indicate who was travelling and how many in excess of the official capacity, were allowed to make the one hour journey.
In the end, over 240 persons perished, with some bodies not found to this day. The remains of the ferry itself rest at the bottom of the channel in its watery grave, just off Nags Head. In recent years, one of the few survivors, Captain Skeete of the MV Sea Hustler, has taken the time to interrupt one of his morning journeys, between the islands, on the anniversary date, to place a wreath in the spot where the vessel now sits.
The alarm of the sinking first surfaced late in the afternoon and then without warning, the music being played on the government radio station ZIZ changed to a more somber tempo. Then the official announcement came from Premier Robert Bradshaw, when he said, “This is a black night for the entire State, because the motor vessel, MV Christena, sank on its afternoon run between Basseterre and Charlestown.”
People stopped what they were doing. Many cried. Others rushed to the Basseterre and Charlestown waterfronts to satisfy their curiosity and more importantly to look for their loved ones, or for any signs that what they were hearing was not true. But sadly, the evidence of the horrific accident started to materialize as fishing boats started to land the victims on the shores of both islands.
The nation was shocked in an emotional nightmare that not many believed could happen because since being launched on 11th June, 1959, and operating for 11 years, the Christena was said to be “unsinkable”.
Among the victims were babies, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters and fathers who were making the trip for varied reasons. Many were vendors heading home to Nevis while others were Kittitians on their way to a weekend of fun for what then was called the “August Monday” weekend of horse racing and other activities. There were countless who could not swim. And now we are learning that some in the crew were poorly trained and inexperienced, especially to handle the emergency that erupted. It was also reported that the life vests (jackets) were bolted down and could not be accessed by passengers desperately trying to use the devices as a safety gadget.
This was not a sad movie being played out at the Apollo Theatre or a well written novel, as some would have preferred to believe. For them, it was difficult to embrace the reality that their lives were in turmoil, as their families succumbed to their unwelcomed fate.
As the bodies made their way to Basseterre, they were immediately buried in a mass grave at the Springfield cemetery. The work of the Defence Force, Police, prison inmates and countless other citizens helped to prepare the final resting place. As the bulldozer carved out the extended grave, the volunteers placed the hurriedly constructed wooden coffins into the ground, as members of the clergy perform the last rites. Eyes became teary as onlookers broke down and some had to be carried away to calm the pain and anguish of seeing their family members taking their final journey in unexpected urgency, but with some dignity, under the circumstances.
Crowds gathered along Cayon Street and Greenlands as the convoy of vehicles arrived with the victims.
The scene in Nevis was no different, except there, only one doctor happened to be available to treat those who had survived and in need of medical attention. Medical doctor Kennedy Simmonds performed his services to the victims with the assistance of nurses and ordinary citizens who simply wanted to help. Approximately 93 survivors were treated at the Alexandra Hospital. Rescue boats brought in about 38 bodies, and at first people seemed afraid and unprepared to handle the high count of victims. Many of them who wanted to help, and did, were first overcome by grief. Simmonds, later in the evening, was assisted and then relived by Dr. Cuthbert Sebastian. Simmonds 10 years after went on to become Premier of St. Kitts and Nevis and three years after that, the country’s first Prime Minister. Sebastian too, 26 years after, became the second Governor General of a then independent St. Kitts and Nevis.
Walking amongst us to today are persons, who suffered the misery of the sinking but lucky to have been rescued or saved by their own abilities to swim to safety. These are real people who are known to us and include popular calypsonian Lord Kut, retired pilot-Ian Kelsick, Captain Skeete-of the MV Sea Hustler, Livingstone Sargeant-former cricketer. And there are others.
How difficult it must be each year, over these four decades, to reflect at this time on an anniversary that should have never been. Sadly, as country, it is complained, that St. Kitts and Nevis, has not done a good job of remembrance for those who lost their lives. While the successive governments in Nevis have established a tradition of a memorial service on 1st August; for reasons unknown, the governments that have served from Basseterre have not found it necessary to dedicate time and effort to pay similar tribute. While Nevis has erected two monuments, none to date, is placed anywhere in St. Kitts.
Unfortunately, it almost seems as though there are those who wish to forget. Those who wish the subject is not discussed and given prominence. As a nation, St. Kitts (especially) and Nevis has not been good stewards of its own history. This legacy of “wanting to forget” is larceny to the heritage and historical path that has been travelled in the social development of these two small developing islands.
It is time to remember the Christena Disaster, with leadership shown by the federal Government, given that it was the central administration that not only purchased the ferry out of British Guyana, for $132,500, but also owned and managed it. The ferry was very much in need. It was to replace the MV Anslyn that was damaged by Hurricane Greta in 1956 and the MV Rehoboth which was destroyed by fire in 1958, leaving a void for a vessel to undertake the heavy flow of daily traffic between the islands.
The model of remembrance demonstrated by the people of Nevis ought to be duplicated in Basseterre. Not even the political dynamics that cloud the perspectives of Kittitians and Nevisians should be cause for “not remembering”.
There is no doubt that the wounds inflicted on so many people, will never heal, especially in communities like Jessup’s Village that was one of the hardest hit with losses, but at least some hearts would be comforted if there is a demonstration of “caring”.
As the Christena languished and the victims cried for help and as some disappeared below the surface, a ship, the Hawthorne Enterprise, that departed St. Kitts, just after the Christena, was said to be passing by but refused the calls for help and continued on its journey.
Many have wondered, quietly and aloud, how many more could have been saved had the Hawthorne Enterprise stopped and rendered assistance.