July 6, 1964, for most Guyanese back then had begun like any other day. For Claude Patoir, a resident of Ituni, and employee of Norman Chapman, an enterprising businessman, it was just a regular working day. Little did he know it would be one he would never forget!
Claude, along with two of his co-workers, had disembarked the vessel they had been loading at the “fish koker wharf” in Georgetown and headed to an eating place in the La Penitence market to have breakfast.
Later on their way back to the launch, the Son Chapman, the three men encountered a man named Brown, who told them, ’Boy allyuh boat gon blow up!’
Patoir, now 67, said they were not afraid, as they had been hearing of threats to “blow up” the boat, but nonetheless decided to call the police, who subsequently checked the boat and found nothing unusual.
The men continued with loading the launch and left Georgetown for Linden about 11am, that day with less than a full complement of passengers.
Soon the men would forget the man at the Koker that had warned them, as they ferried up the Demerara River.
’It was a beautiful day and the crew members and some of the passengers, were on deck just enjoying the trip laughing and talking. We made a couple of stops along the way to put off persons, not actually stopping at a ’landing’, but just stopping in the river briefly as the passengers got into smaller boats that came out to meet them.
Our only real stop was at Horadia, which was the only stop that had a “stelling” and two people got off there, one Winifred Douglas, and her reputed husband Alex Campbell; Patoir recollected.
Those two must have counted their lucky stars that day, as less than 20 minutes later, the serenity of the Demerara River was shattered as a terrible explosion rocked the Son Chapman.
Douglas would later report how after disembarking the launch, she and her husband had walked just a short distance when they heard the explosion.
“One of the men on deck with us, who was known as ’Dodi’, had just gotten married, and was on his way down the steps to get some of his wedding cake to share with us. He never got to the cake!”
“When I heard the explosion, I thought it was the engine, but as I ran past, the chimney was smoking, so the engine had to be running still.”
“Looking in the hull of the boat, I saw people there just sitting like they were in shock, or maybe they were already dead!”
“Everything happened so fast, I think we were all in shock.” Patoir recounted.
Forty-three persons lost their lives tragically that day.
The few persons who were saved included the entire boat crew, who were mostly on the deck and bow.
Fortunately for them, another launch which the Son Chapman had passed on the ill-fated trip, soon came along and took some of them to Linden .
Residents of Horadia, also came out in their paddle boats and rendered assistance.
Meanwhile, news of the horrific tragedy travelled like wildfire, plunging Linden which was then known as Mckenzie, into deep mourning.
“It was the worst thing I have ever witnessed; never have I seen anything like that, except perhaps in the movies. It was a really sad time; for all those people were like family, as they would travel with us, sometimes two, three times a week. And they were good to us, they would often bring us lunch and so on, as most of us who worked on the boat at the time were bachelors.
Sometimes we would even cook on the boat, and the hucksters would give us fish and provisions.
And even with all the threats of bombing the launch that were circulating, they would never travel with any other launch.
As a matter of fact, some of them responded to the threats saying, “If we ga fo dead, we gon dead pon the Son Chapman.” Patoir recalled.
Little did they know that those words would prove to be prophetic?
Patoir said that his worst recollection of the tragedy was helping to retrieve the bodies of those who had died, and helping to identify them.
“It was dreadful, that sight. People were dismembered, and one woman who was pregnant, had spontaneously given birth! The foetus lay entangled with her entrails, close to her. She had been disemboweled!
But the hardest part was watching as bodies that were retrieved days later, being tied together like a makeshift raft to take to Linden .
A few of them that were in a terrible state of decomposition were buried right at Horadia,” Patoir added.
Persons in the vicinity reported how rank the river was for days after; and seeing the grotesquely bloated bodies popping out of the water.
Owner of the vessel, Norman Chapman, said he was not surprised when he received the terrible news, as he had long been hearing of plans to ’waste’ the Son Chapman. He had made reports to the police, though, and had taken certain precautionary security measures.
Both Chapman and his old engineer Patoir reiterated that there were persons that were jealous of the popularity of the launch and were therefore determined to stop her at any cost.
’’There was no other way; they could have stopped the Son Chapman, we were the fastest and firmest boat plying the Demerara at the time. People loved our service, as we were the most reliable and courteous. The other boats that used to run, used to have to wait for us to full, before they could load,’ Patoir boasted.
That popularity sadly led to the tragic snuffing out of forty three innocent lives, whose only crime was to have loved one of the fastest launches to ply the Demerara River.
One of the persons who did not die that day in the blast was Joseph Skeete, who became quite a controversial figure as some persons felt that he may have known more about the tragedy than he was letting on.
But Skeete maintained his innocence throughout the inquest that would follow. He would report during the inquest into the tragedy how he had planned to travel with the launch, but missed it after the rain came down, and he ran to seek shelter, while his two friends, who were with him ran into the boat.
Skeete never travelled with the launch that day as according to reports he later gave, by the time he got back to the stelling, the Son Chapman had already left.
Mr. Bobby Noel, a salesman from Linden, later recounted that he was only able to survive by desperately holding on to two tins of biscuits. However, he was forced to release the tins after they began to take in water. He was finally rescued.
He had lost $300 in goods, quite a handsome figure at that time.
Mrs. Gwendolyn Richards, a 48-year-old huckster of Wismar later recalled that the reason she did not travel on the Son Chapman on that fateful day was due to the rumours that she had heard earlier that morning. She had even repeated what she had heard to the boat captain, Softleigh; who dispelled the rumours as being propaganda.
Another woman, reported after the tragedy, how she had been warned not to travel with the launch by a friend, and was therefore very surprised when she returned to Mckenzie the following day, to learn that the very friend had perished in the explosion.
Claude Browne, who had once worked on the Lalta P, another launch, stated that he had overheard men talking about plans to blow up the Son Chapman, and a few days later related what he had heard to Herman Softleigh.
He recalled that one man had remarked, upon seeing the Son Chapman passing in the river, “This boat can’t last more that a week.”
Thirty-three persons would survive the horrendous tragedy, of whom six were crew members.
A few years ago, a monument was erected at Horadia, in memory of those who had lost their lives so tragically on that Monday afternoon in July more than four decades ago.
A commemoration ceremony has been planned for tomorrow at the monument site at Horadia.(Enid Joaquin)
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