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Memories of the MV Christena: St.Kitts-Nevis’ Worst Disaster ! by Ivan C. Buchanan, CBE

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The August 1st,  1970, was an epoch making catastrophe in St. Kitts and Nevis. On that particular day 48 years ago the MV Christina sank between St.Kitts and Nevis during her passage. I can recall the events of that day because of my involvement in the salvaging of many of the passengers who perished.  That Saturday was a beautiful day, sunny and very calm and I was more or less excited because I was having my daughter, a school girl at the time, Carla Donna, to collect from the ferry on its return trip from Charlestown, Nevis because she had gone to spend some of her school holidays with her friend Irma Johnson at Craddock Road. I journeyed from Greenlands in my car to the waterfront and mingled with the crowd that was all congregated on the pier fronting the Treasury. There were those who were going to Nevis because the Monday following was August Monday which was an annual event to celebrate the abolition of slavery which was officially granted in 1834.  Each year, people went over to Nevis for that particular occasion.  It was similar to another occasion where one Easter Sunday , people went to Brimstone Hill and sure enough in 1950 there was also an incident in Brimstone Hill where many persons were trampled to death because of a light shower of rain. 

 

On that Saturday, 30 July, I saw friends rushing on the pier to board the Christina. We chatted and made fun.  There were others like myself who were just curious and of course I had enough time that around 2pm to journey to Sandy Point to see my brother and to return in time to collect my daughter when the boat would have returned from Nevis.  I also noticed that the boat was overloaded.  It was a two decker and people had taken all the seats on both decks and there was standing room all along the rails. The boat really was over its capacity. Yet, still people were rushing because they thought that they were late to board the boat. While I stood there gazing, up came CaptainPonteen.  He tookone look of the ferry and spoke with me and he said “I am going to return to the Ministry and speak with the Permanent Secretary. Mr.Jules Cox to seek his permission to make a second trip, because the crowd on the boat was too much”.So, he turned around and disappeared in the crowd. I lingered there for a while andshortly after, Capt. Ponteen returned and came up to me and said that he was not successful in getting permission to make the second trip; that the Permanent Secretary said it must be one trip only. Capt. Ponteen’s face was upset and I could see his agitation. Anyhow, because it was a daily run and on a Saturday when so much business was done between the two islands, he decided he would take a chance. He gave instructions to cast off and so the ropes holding the stern of the boat were released and the engines were fired up and the MV Christina pushed its stern away from the dock.The bow was still touching the pier and people were still leaping aboard. Capt. Ponteen boarded and got into the wheel house. I then noticed there were other people, vendors who came down from Nevis with their various produce, their yams, potatoes and what not, their charcoal and these were regular customers on the Christina each Saturday. Capt. Ponteen realized that he could not leave them behind so, he nudged the bow back to the pier and allowed them to get on the ferry.  The ferry chugged away from the pier and I turned off, got in my car and drove to Sandy Point to see my brother bearing in mind that I would be back in time to pick up my daughter.

I returned to Basseterre and observed there was a lot of agitation from the village and that people were heading to the Bay Road.  So, I asked a question, “What was this excitement?” I was told that the Christina had sunk.  I suddenly felt terrible because I thought that it was on its return trip and that my daughter was on board. So, I gassed up and hasted down to the waterfront. The first question I made was a to a police officer and I asked for information. He told me that the Christina has sunk off ofNagsHead, but on its way to Charlestown.   I was greatly relieved of that news but at the same time I was bringing back to mind that an hour or two before that I had seenso many happy faces, friends, family, acquaintances who were on their way to celebrate that August Monday in Nevis. 

– Ivan Buchanan, originally from Sandypoint is the former Chief Public Health Inspector at the time the MV Christena sunk. He later became the Speaker of the National Assembly and later given the title, Commander of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. He received a certificate from the Who’s Who in the World, Fourteenth Edition, 1997, by the Marquis Who’s Who Publication Board. He was appointed Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of National Bank for 14 years, and still holds Foundation Member at the Cable. He is now retired at 97 years young.

On the way home, at Greenlands I ran into an old friend, Dr. William Herbert better known to me as Billy Herbert and he confirmed the calamity and told me that he had just landed from a light plane with Lawyer Boone and they had flown over the area where the Christina had sunk and they had noticed a lot of bodies floating around.  I was so crest fallen and for Saturday night, I was sleeping fitfully because I was bringing back to mind what had just occurred a few hours before.

            Sunday morning dawned and there was a pall, a pall of sadness around Basseterre in particular. And so, I took it easy and spoke with my daughter on the telephone and told her we would try to get her home as best as we could. Monday morning, August Monday, the 1st of August, like Saturday, dawned as a beautiful sunny day.  At about 8am, I heard a call at my front gate and there was a police in front of my gate and he said to me, “the Honourable Minister of Health, Mr. Bryant has asked me to say to you that they’re salvaging bodies from the sunken ferry and as Chief Public Health Inspector, he is asking that you go to the pier to render assistance in the salvaging process.” I jumped in my car and I rushed to St. Johnson’s village and spoke with a very trusted foreman, Peter Carter who worked at the Health Dept. I asked him to accompany me to the pier.  I went and opened the storeroom and collected some pressure pumps, insecticide and disinfectant. The insecticide at the time DDT and disinfectant was Dettol.  Mr. Carter and I went to the pier and sure enough there were thousands of people lining the waterfront, stretching on both sides of the Treasury.  They were held at bay and as orderly as possible by a contingent of police.  I journeyed on the pier and there was Capt. Ponteen’s wife standing all by herself, forlorn and a young lady who worked at the airline known as WINAIR, but who was the girlfriend of a Mr. Francis.  Mr. Francis, was an architect working at the Public Works Department and he also had gone over to Nevis on the Christina to do some work.She feared for his life and so like Mrs. Ponteen was there anxious to find out some information on her friend.  There were prisoners who had been released to assist in the handling or salvaging of the bodies that were brought ashore and of course there were many fishing boats from Newtown manned by their owners also assisting.  The British Navy had a Frigate and the French had a Minesweeper and they also were busy working in the salvaging process.  Also, to note was the Coroner.  He was the Magistrate, Clement Arindell who oversaw the Magistrate Courts in the District of Basseterre and of course years later he became more prominent when he became our first Governor General, Sir Clement Arindell. We both spoke, and I informed him of my role in the process.

About 30 minutes or so after my arrival at the head of the pier the first bodies started to arrive in row boats.They were bloated but an excellent job of salvaging was done. Insofar that, they all were wrapped in sheets and blankets supplied presumably by the ships and their heads were all encased in plastic bags tied securely around the necks. The feet were tied together by a cord and at the end of the cord was a cardboard label. On this label was a physical description of the body that waswrapped.  I removed the cord and the cardboard label, read what was on it and noted that it was a description giving the average age of the deceased and the clothing and whatever other marks physically were observed and whatever jewellery were attached.  I handed this to the police and the police in a very loud voice described what was written on the cardboard.  On a few occasions there were people who heard the information that was given and assumed it was the belongingsof a relative, brother sister, cousin, etc.  They would come on the pier to identity more fully what was discussed and displayed.  A scissors was provided to me and so I had to undo the excellent job, removing the plastic cover over the face, cutting away the strings that had the sheets and blankets encasing the body. Of course, the whole of the body was 3-4 times of a normal individual.  The waistband and buckles were still intact.  People came along, had a look and in many cases, they left saying it was not their relative.  There were a few occasions where they identified the relative, but no one take away the cadaver. So, we had the Public Works Dept. and the Housing Authority donate plywood and we had the carpenters from both government agencies  make rough caskets. 

The prisoners were expected to place each body in a makeshift plywood casket.  We commandeered flatbed trucks with the filled improvised casket.  When each flatbed truck was filled to capacity, I would then proceed in front of it with its documents written and signed by Coroner Arindell and journey to the cemetery.At the cemetery, the crowd was almost as much as the crowd on the waterfront. Working assiduously was a Mr. Berry. I think he is Arnold Berry, who had a front-end loader making 6 feet deep trenches in which the bodies would be placed.  I handed the coroners documents to the cemetery keeper and journeyed back to the waterfront to continue my work.  Of course, I must let you know that the stench, the swarm of flies, they were actually on both places and of course had to carry out spraying more so at the waterfront than at the cemetery.  Monday all day we salvaged these bodies and at the end of the day, I again had to journey to the Minister of Public Works, which was controlled by Minister Paul Southwell and report to him the work that we had accomplished both at the pier and at the cemetery that day.  He got the count. 

Tuesday morning arrived, another beautiful and sunny, but sad day.  When I arrived with my assistant, there was no Coroner, so I had to journey over to the Fortlands where he lived in the government apartments and was told by his wife that he was unwell, that she could not get him to eat his breakfast and that regardless of what I did, she could not get him to have any meal.  I recalled then that an old friend of mine had told me once that if you swallowed a raw egg in a glass of wine it will stay down in your stomach and nothing you did could actually cause you to vomit it up. And so, I decided to try that age old treatment and I asked Mrs. Arindell to bring the egg and wine and I got Coroner Arindell to swallow it.  Sure enough, it stayed down.  He sat around for a few minutes and then he rallied, had a cup of tea and journeyed with me back to work on Tuesday morning.  We worked that Tuesday until around that midday.  During that day, I had a very interesting visitor.  A gentleman came on the pier and asked permission of the police and he spoke to the Coroner. He told Coroner Arindell that his brother was a butcher, that his brother had come down that Saturday morning, July 30 to pay people at the abattoir and the public market in Basseterre for animals he had taken from them.  On top of that, that he had sold off all of his meat and so he had a lot of money on him.  And that he, the brother was seeking the Coroners permission to search his brothers’ body and clothing in case he was identified as being salvaged.  The Coroner refused very strongly, but I was able to coerce him with the actual points which I stressed that if he has a really sharp knife, he could cut the pockets of his pants out without interfering with the flesh.  Also, visiting the pier was Dr. Cuthbert Sebastien.  He was the person who was having the prisoners work and he came to make certain that no prisoner had any cuts or bruises so that there would be no contamination leading to gangrene. Also, coming onto the pier was the Chief Minister, Robert Llewelyn Bradshaw. He did not make it too far because the smell, the stench, the flies were so disturbing that he turned around and disappeared.  We never saw him again. 

On the Tuesday, we were having a rough time. Sharks and other fish had started interfering with the flesh of the deceased. Some were coming ashore with no head, but just a jagged neckline with blood all over their clothes.  One or two were recognized because of what they had on, but of course nobody took any dead body away.  Again, on Tuesday, we went up to cemetery.  But before going I must record the visit of the brother of the deceased butcher.  Sure enough, his brothers body came up. He identified it and with his knife, he went to work on the pockets of the pants. He cut away as instructed.  The pockets were rushed off with whatever he had as money.  Before we were able to move the flatbed truck on which his brothers body was placed, he came back and said that was not all the money and that he was seeking our permission to again search his brothers clothes. We objected at this time but unknown to us, he had marked the improvised box in which his brothers remains were. He went outside the pier and hired a taxi and he instructed the driver to follow that particular flatbed truck.  I left ahead of the truck and did the usual with the papers to thecemetery keeper and low and behold, when the flatbed truck arrived, and the improvised caskets were taken off and laid six feet wide, side by side, the gentleman appeared. He rushed to the trench, jumped down the six feet and he noted the mark he had on that casket. He ripped the top off, the police with their batons were all trying to get at him in the trench, but all they did was stand aloof and shout at him to get up and get out. He overturned the casket, tilted the remains of his brother and again with his knife he went on the other pockets in his clothing, cutting them away and tossing up some of the fabric. Some got punctured, the wind took a few notes across the grass and the crowd then realized it was money and they started to shout and chase the notes.  Anyhow, he was quite satisfied this time that he had emptied the cadaver of his pockets and he left. 

Fast forward 3 weeks later, I heard a call at Greenlands and when I looked out it was the gentleman who had salvaged money from his dead brother. He lifted from a car a case of sodas and he said to me, “Mr. Buchanan, I have brought this to thank you very much for your assistance in allowing me to get money from my brother’s body.”  I do not remember his name, but one thing I could recall was that looking back on that Tuesday, the second day of August, I realized that he did not put back the remains of his brother’sbody in the plywood box, so it remained in the dirt and the plywood box remained upturned. That is how Mr. Berry continued to cover the trench. The Coroner and I after Tuesdays work had decided we could not continue salvaging because the flesh of the bodies were disintegrating from the bones. 

Wednesday morning came, but both the coroner and myself on the Tuesday decided that the bodies we were salvaging were too far gone in decay. We noted that the heels were detached from the foot and that the flesh was just hanging from the toes. We noticed that some of the bodies had no arms and of course those that had a head on, their eyes had tumbled from their sockets and protruding from the cheeks.  Their tongues were hanging down the chest and congeal blood was all over the bodies.  Of course, the flies, the stench, all of that pervaded the atmosphere. We decided that Wednesday we would tie off our work.  So, it was on Wednesday morning, the Coroner at this time; a small man, was holding his pants up because his waistline had shrunken and his belt was not able to hold his pants. One hand was holding a handkerchief to his nostrils and the other hand of course was holding on to his pants and buckle.  One boat arrived, a row boat, by that time the bodies that were coming ashore were depigmented.  The epidermis had bleached out, so the bodies were all white.

We were able to note two bodies, one was Mr. Francis because his lady friend had identified his clothes, which were still intact and I was able to identify Capt. Ponteen, because he still had on his khaki, but protruding from one pocket of his pants was the metal punch that he used each day to punch the tickets of the people who boarded the boat. I looked at Mrs. Ponteen and I went to her and I said to her in a very stern but sympathetic voice, “That dead body you see there, lying at the head of the pier is supposed to be the body of your husband. I am not allowing you to redeem it. I would like you turn around, go home, get a picture or two of your husband as you see him depicted in his photographs, look well at him and try and record the memory of Capt. Ponteen as you have him hanging in your house.”  Mrs. Ponteen screeched and the tears flowing down her cheeks, she looked squarely at me, thanked me, turned around and went off the pier to her home in Newtown. The other lady who was waiting for Mr. Francis did likewise.  The day before that on Tuesday, I had convinced her to take away the very lovely mahogany casket that she had brought from Ross and Clarke funeral home so she also was able in her sad, miserable state to reconcile herself that death had come to her lover.

            So it was, that the Christina event was now closing. I went and spoke with Minister Southwell who arranged for a communal service to be convened at the spot where the boat went down. Arch Deacon, G. P. Walker of the Anglican church was taken off to the spot by Launch with other well-meaning people who mourned the loss and who had wreathes.The funeral rights above the area where the Christina lay at the bottom were performed. Also, at the cemetery there was a communal service where all the denominations were  invited to participate also for that communal service. 

Each year when this date comes around, I am somewhat haunted by my part which I played in the Christina disaster but sad to say, when tributes were accorded to the various peoples who did work on that particular occasion, my name was never mentioned.  Up to now, it has not been.  Perhaps I can borrow from Thomas Grey in his  poem entitled “Eulogy in a Country Church Yard, “Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid, some heart once pregnant with celestial fire.”

 

About Ivan Buchanan: 

  • Ivan Buchanan, originally from Sandypoint is the former Chief Public Health Inspector at the time the MV Christena sunk. He later became the Speaker of the National Assembly and later given the title, Commander of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II.  He received a certificate from the Who’s Who in the World, Fourteenth Edition, 1997, by the Marquis Who’s Who Publication Board. He was appointed Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of National Bank for 14 years, and still holds Foundation Member at the Cable.  He is now retired at 97 years young.

 

About the Christena Disaster:

The Christena Disaster was a ferry boat shipwreck with 233 casualties that occurred August 1st, 1970 between the islands of Nevis and St. Kitts. The boat was only to occupy 125 deck passengers, 30 first class passengers, and 5 tons of cargo.The Christena was a steal boat that was 66 ft long and had a beam of 16 ft. It was a government owned and operated ferry boat, which for 11 years had worked the  12 mile route between Basseterre, St. Kitts, and Charlestown, Nevis. Only 91 people survived, the great majority of those were people that had to be rescued.After the sinking, 57 bodies were retrieved and identified; 66 bodies were retrieved, but were unidentifiable. 

 

 

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