Sugar workers who perished in 1970 clarifier incident remembered
…monument to be erected
By Leon Suseran
A historic event took place recently in the Rose Hall Estate, M.S. compound in East Canje to commemorate the seven sugar workers who perished 43 years ago while cleaning a clarifier tank. The members of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), Rose Hall Estate, the community, Indian Cultural Committee, relatives of the deceased, and the Region 6 Administration gathered in the estate compound to remember the victims and to solidify their commitment to erect a monument in the estate compound.
But it was also an extra special morning since there was present one worker on duty from that fateful January 13, 1970 morning, one of Guyana’s oldest engineers, Mr. Grenville Felix.
Ramdeo Singh, 32; Parboo 56; Abdul Gafoor 50; Seepersaud ‘Ivan’ Sarjudas, 34; Mohabir, Parboo’s brother, 51; Dhanpaul Baijnauth, 28; and Ranjeet Boodram, 29 all perished after they ventured to clean a clarifier while on duty. Up to the day of the memorial, there was never any formal commemorative event for the victims, even though the Rose Hall Estate toots its whistle every January 13 for the souls lost.
Two men were assigned the task of cleaning the No.3 clarifier. They were supervised by Process Foreman, Abdul Gafoor. However, shortly after 8AM, shouts were heard, and several workers were seen running to and from the clarifier. Gafoor emerged from the No. 3 clarifier and ran to the No. 4 quad where a switchboard was located. At the switchboard, he obtained a drop cord with a bulb at the end. He used this device to see what was going on in the clarifier. He saw the two workers unconscious. He then descended into the clarifier for the express purpose of rendering assistance to the workers. He fell on the scroll of the clarifier while descending. Gafoor lost his life in a brave attempt to save the lives of both of his workers. Another Process Foreman by the name of Peters was informed that Gafoor had fallen into the clarifier. Peters took the precautionary measure of having a rope placed inside the clarifier. The rope was tied to a 6″ pipe. Peters then entered the clarifier. After descending about four feet, Peters found his nostrils burning and breathing was difficult. He then pulled the rope and was barely pulled out of the clarifier. He lost consciousness shortly after, but survived. Yassim Khan, a welder, was able to pull him to safety. He was only about forty feet from the clarifier. Carron, a porter employed by the factory came on the scene. He tied a rope around himself with the intention of rescuing the workers. However, before he could enter, Dhanpaul Baijnauth pushed him aside and hurried through the manhole. As Dhanpaul was going down, he shouted out that there were six or seven men at the bottom of the clarifier, including three other workers-Parboo, Seepersaud Sarjudas and Ranjeet Boodram. In fact, he became the seventh victim.
Representative of the Indian Cultural Committee, Mr. Evan Persaud recounted at the memorial, what took place. He said one by one, the men fell into the tank after each tried to rescue the other one. “When they went in they were being overcome by obnoxious fumes and they were unconscious when they were pulled to the surface…but the brave Mr. Baijnuth went in without a rope and he was left there. When the tank was cut open at the bottom with a torch, and the seven men were taken out, 6 were already dead and Bainjauth was taken to the hospital where he died 10 days later”.
The Rose Hall Estate, in those days, was owned and operated by Bookers and the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) had just started up and provided the only monetary compensation to the families.“Bookers wasn’t really interested in paying any monies to the widows”, Persaud related. “At that time the NIS had just been formed and in the Minister of Labour at the time, Mr. Winslow Carrington, presented the men killed with the first ever death benefit pay-out by the NIS—not a lump sum—it was supposed to have given the families of $145,100 in 20 years”.
Ninety- five- year old Grenville Felix, an employer at the time on the day of the tragedy recounted the horror he felt on that sad day. “I remember this day because my first day back from vacation—seven of these workers did not return home alive—everything was normal between 7am and 8am”. He was around and turned out the same day to work “…and in coming I saw people running, coming towards the boiling house side and I thought something happened and I, too, started to run and then someone told me some men drowned and I was shocked”. Felix said that he made every effort to save the men’s lives “but we couldn’t do anything with them and I knew one fellow, he died and his brother-in-law died too, who went to see if he could save him… but ended up dying”. Felix did his utmost to render assistance to the dying men but was not successful.
“Such an incident has never occurred in the history of Guyana”. At the end of the memorial, the factory’s whistle blew off seven times in succession to honour the fallen workers. It was an ominous sound that echoed throughout the East Canje community and even New Amsterdam. The programme was punctuated with poem recitals and tassa drumming. Water was then poured on sugar cane to signify the commitment of erecting a monument in the near future for the workers who died.