By Enid Joaquin
The cold overcast day, with a sprinkling of sporadic drizzle that threatened to become torrential showers any minute, was somehow reflective of the somber mood of the small group of people that journeyed to Horadia yesterday, to commemorate the death anniversary of forty-three Lindeners, who perished there over forty years ago, when an explosion blew the Son Chapman and most of those onboard to bits.
Horadia seemed lonesome, desolate, with just a few houses scattered here and there.
And as usual the murky Demerara River was placid, imperturbable – it was hard to imagine that something as horrendous as the Son Chapman explosion could have occurred atop this sea of silence, whose depths could never divulge the horrible secrets.
But it did, that terrible Monday, 6th July 1964, shattering the quiet of the afternoon, and plunging Linden, which was then known as Mackenzie into shock and mourning.
The incident was, and still is, dubbed the worst catastrophe, apart from Jonestown, that has rocked this country.
And so every year, for the last four years, Lindeners journey to the site at Horadia to pay homage to these martyrs.
For martyrs they are, according to guest speaker at this year’s memorial, Mayor of Georgetown, Hamilton Green.
He said that the short address given by owner of the ill-fated launch, Norman Chapman, was very relevant, and alluded to the importance of unity, and exhorted those present to set aside personal differences and ambitions declaring, “whatever may be your political or religious beliefs what is clear is this country faces a common enemy”. And quoting Cicero he further declared “Whatever may be our differences we have one common peril, and therefore one safety and that safety is us working together.”
Green suggested that next year at the Son Chapman memorial, which he emphasised is not an anti-Indian activity, but an activity that focuses on the plight of our people, the participants should not be talking about a monument or the Son Chapman Memorial service, but converting the event to talk about the “Son Chapman Martyrs”.
Regional Chairman Mortimer Mingo said that the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the Son Chapman explosion must not go in vain, but that through determination and strong representation, it must be ensured that such an incident does not repeat itself. “As a resilient people we must struggle for every ounce of our rights to ensure that the patrimony of this country belongs to all of the people, and not to some of the people.” He pointed out that the racial divide is something that no country should embrace.
Some persons felt however that the Son Chapman Memorial is not given the recognition it deserves, and suggested that the event should be more centralized, within Linden itself so that more residents could participate. It was even suggested that the site at Horadia should be open throughout the year to visitors, including students who might want to go and have a firsthand look at the place.
Yesterday’s event was graced by quite a few youths from across Region 10, who reportedly were encouraged to attend by Member of Parliament Vanessa Kissoon, who was also instrumental in helping Carlisa Blair and Yonika Roland in putting together some historical facts of the unfortunate tragedy.
This was well received by the gathering.
A DAY THAT WOULD NEVER BE FORGOTTEN
July 6th 1964 for most Guyanese back then had begun like any other day. For Claude Pattoi, 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 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 alyuh boat gon blow up!’
Pattoi said that 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, where they found nothing unusual.
The men continued with loading the launch and left Georgetown for Linden about 11am, that day with less than their 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,” Claude Pattoi recollected.
Those two must have counted their lucky stars that day, as less than twenty 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.” Pattoi recounted.
Forty-three persons lost their lives tragically that day.
The few persons that were saved included the entire boat crew, who were mostly on the boat’s 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.
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, it was reported.
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 Pattoi reiterated that there were persons that were jealous of the launch’s popularity 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,” Pattoi boasted.
That popularity may have 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.
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