Exactly 46 years ago today, 30 people lost their lives on the Morne Prosper Road in the worst road tragedy in Dominica’s history.
Brooklyn-based minister of religion, Reverend Randolph Bourne recalled the ordeal as “chilling” and described witnessing a hospital doctor’s unsuccessful attempt to resuscitate the ninth and last surviving member of the Deschamps family who had been in the accident.
With a remorseful shake of the head, the doctor looked at him and said “she’s gone.”
Just hours earlier on May 21, 1975, the victim was one of 35 pilgrims who had climbed aboard a passenger truck destined for the “Christ is the Answer” Pentecostal crusade at Windsor Park. They never got to their destination.
The overloaded truck had spun out of control and plunged over a precipice near a sharp bend in the road, just minutes into its journey. The victims were men, women and children.
Reverend Bourne, speaking to Dominica News Online (DNO), recounted his experience trying to assist victims on the night of the accident.
He explained that he had been a paid engineer at the crusade, which began at 7 p.m. that evening. Fifteen minutes later, a commotion ensued outside the gathering in which people were claiming that a bus had gone down into a precipice at Morne Prosper.
Not long after, they journeyed to the accident scene to assist police, firemen, defense force personnel and other volunteers to remove the victims who were scattered among trees and branches across the cliff face. The reverend said that the truck’s housing and engine had been separated because of the impact of the accident.
Bodies were loaded onto trucks and taken to the Red Cross Headquarters on Federation Drive, Goodwill, where they were laid out for identification and preparation for burial. This process went on until the next day, according to the Bourne.
“There weren’t any lights in the area and we depended on the few lights that the police vehicles had. They gave us some sense of direction,” he said.
As there were no funeral homes and burials had to take place within 24 hours of death, if not earlier, two huge funerals were held in Roseau on May 22, one at the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the other at the Pentecostal Church.
“…They did not have enough facilities for the bodies so they had some prisoners building boxes in the area. As soon as the box was finished a body was put into the box and was trafficked down to the church because we had half of the bodies at the Catholic Church and the remaining half at the Pentecostal Church,” he explained.
Prisoners worked feverishly all day to make enough coffins out of whatever wood was available.
Individual graves could not be dug in time so excavating machines dug out two long trenches, one in the public cemetery and the other in the Catholic cemetery, to lay the coffins and then covered them all together.
“…So as we were conducting the service, the bodies were being carried into the church and you could actually see the drips of the fluid from the bodies coming out of the boxes as they wheeled them into the church at that particular time,” the former teacher and principal recalled.
According to Bourne, what compounded the nightmare was the fact that the missionaries and crusade personnel were being “taunted” and told that they were “evil” and were the ones who had caused the accident.
“I remember quite clearly that the Catholic priest from the area had said that we were evil and that we came and killed these Dominicans,” he said.
“…It was a chilling experience because after the accident, where we were staying, there were those people who came, they were taunting us and telling us that we were evil and we need to get out of Dominica before something happens to us because we came there and we killed all of these people. It was a frightening experience at that particular time,” he stated.
As to the cause of the accident, Bourne said that reports suggest that the original driver had stopped to allow his brother Lennox Deschamps to drive sometime during the journey but he reportedly had a mishap while changing gears and the vehicle went out of control.
“He (the original driver) stayed on the back (of the truck)… The reports came in that when he was coming down (the road) he tried to come back in a lower gear and the truck neutralized and therefore he lost control…,” the reverend said.
“When we went back to the area, there was a huge tree and a small tree. Had he hit the big tree it would have saved their lives. But he missed the big tree [and] went through the area of the small tree…cut the tree off…The front engine part of the vehicle was pulled over the cliff and separated itself from the back part… and this thing dropped about 60 feet down and all the bodies were all over the area, [with] people shouting and screaming and crying,” he stated.
Bourne said that over the years, he has constantly thought about the accident and its victims and his heart goes out to their families especially the Deschamps, since he had witnessed one of their deaths.
He sought to send out some words of encouragement and comfort to the families of the victims, urging them to keep trusting and believing in God.
“I will say unto them, may you have courage and know that God is still God, that Jesus Christ is still His Son and He is still concerned about everyone,” he stated.
“I say to them that it (the accident) has nothing directly to do with the “Christ is the Answer” crusade at Windsor Park. It is just, as I would say, destiny. What has to happen will happen and we cannot underestimate or somehow understand the sovereignty of God – [or] why God will allow things to happen, when it happens, and to whom they happen,” he added.
Bourne hopes that he will meet someone from the Deschamps family the next time he visits the island.
“Know that all things happen for good to them that love the Lord,” he said.
The list of victims as published in the press around the time of the accident was as follows:
Vernon Jno. Baptiste
The crusade was discontinued following the accident.