Better safe than sorry

November 29, 2000
By Terry Joseph

EVEN today, every step I take with my permanently injured right-leg, is another painful reminder of the price I paid for cavalier disregard of a gut feeling experienced in July 1971.

I was in New York then, failing at every sequence to secure a seat on aircraft, bus or car to Toronto for Caribana. With each passing day, I became more convinced that my mother was right: the forces were signaling me to steer clear of the event.

After both the premonition and a tearful plea from mom, I spat in the face of fate and found a way to get there. Less than an hour after my arrival in Toronto, while walking on what I thought to be the safest part of any pavement, I was hit by a powerful runaway vehicle.

The accident mangled my leg, killed twin nine-year-old boys and fractured the hip of a beautiful young Trinidadian woman, among its 13 victims. I spent the next 365 days at Toronto’s Wellesley Hospital.

And it was a feeling of equal intensity, a sense that something awful would happen, which came over me last week, in the run up to the Machel Montano anniversary concert. Now older and wiser, I became the prophet of doom, sharing my gut feeling with anyone who asked if I would be attending.

“I can’t put my finger on it,” I said to enquiring friends and colleagues, “but something about this concert worries me. I am not going.”

The feeling grew stronger by Saturday morning. Indeed, it was not until some 90 minutes before Montano’s scheduled entrance, that I finally decided to throw caution to the wind and attend the show.

But the minute I rounded the back of the stage and the Platinum VIP deck came into view, it was clear to me where the real danger was reposed all the while. The gut feeling, superstition, queasiness, call it what you will, had suddenly become tangible. I decided immediately that I would not go into the enclosure, opting to watch the show on a big screen near the seafront. I spent the next minutes issuing warnings to every familiar person I encountered, to stay far from the deck.

When Janelle “Penny” Commissiong and husband Alwin Chow saw me on the ground and came down from the stand to point out where they were liming, I begged them to not go back there. “That stand is soon going to collapse,” I said definitvely.

Even the steps leading up to the deck seemed to be at an inappropriate angle and when attorney at law, Sharon Legall pointed out men frantically running around with spanners, attempting to tighten bolts under the already sagging structure, I knew the end was near.

The organizers must have known it too, as announcements on the public address system described the scenario as “a crisis situation” and later asked patrons in the area to refrain from jumping up; a complete turnaround from what the soca superstar had spent most of his adult life begging them to do.

Already lamenting deficiencies in the promised bar and food services for holders of $600 tickets, Platinum VIPs were now incensed that they could not enjoy the music for which they paid in the fashion they preferred.

Margaret Francisco, wife of The Mighty Sparrow, had earlier brought her family down to safe ground. I had just gone across to speak with her, when the crash came and hundreds of people were mixed into a jagged heap of plyboard and chairs, from which emanated blood-curdling screams.

It was a horror, the likes of which I had never before witnessed and a scene that has often replayed in my mind since. The ambulances, situated nearer the general admission area to the east of the stage, could not reach the scene of the disaster, evidently because organizers thought that the VIPs would never need them. And if there was an evacuation plan at all, it seemed that only its designer knew the details.

It was chaos at every sequence and Montano, stunned by the moment, remained on stage substituting charisma for contingency, at a time when a disaster management expert (if there was one) should have been speaking to the crowd instead.

The much touted “mega concert of Trinidad and Tobago’s soca superstar” had, in an instant, been reduced to a story of fractured hips, reckless lips, technical blips and undeserved pips.

As distinct from the larger outpouring of concern for the star, who was clearly devastated by the tragedy, my sincere sympathy goes out to all those who were injured or traumatized by the collapse of what engineering experts have deemed an amateurishly constructed stand.

I thank The Creator for sparing me from what, given my reduced agility after the 1971 experience, might have been my last concert.

And to the organizers, let me suggest that it may have been less costly to say: “Sorry, we have to delay the concert, in order to ensure that all accommodation is carefully constructed and safe,” rather than shedding tears after the fact.

No amount of apologies will help any of the pregnant women who were injured, or those whose fractured hips may forever prevent them from having children; one of which might well have grown up to be another Machel Montano.

As mother said, back in 1971: “Better safe than sorry.”

Terry-J at I-Level