The transcript from the 2012 inquiry into the mass breakout and fires that rocked the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) that year suggests several staff members knew of plans to create disturbances but either kept it to themselves or took insufficient steps to prevent same from happening.
The transcript of the probe has been made available to Stabroek News in the wake of renewed turmoil at the NOC on the Essequibo Coast, a remedial facility for the young, where allegations of sexual abuse of girls is now under investigation. Up to now, the government has not released the report into the 2012 disturbances and this has added to concerns that problems from that period have persisted and fuelled the present allegations. The transcript that Stabroek News has seen has painted an unflattering picture of the qualifications of the staff of the NOC at the point of the unrest and other deficiencies.
According to the transcript, the NOC’s Centre Administrator at the time, Jagnarine Somwar, told commissioners that there were no warnings or indicators which would have suggested that a fire was imminent but then retracted his statements when Justice Winston Moore, who headed the inquiry, told him other interviewees indicated that there were warning signs.
Several fires were set by residents of the NOC on August 23rd 2012, the night after a mass breakout. The fires originated in several dorms and also consumed the garment factory and production shop.
During Somwar’s first interview, Alfred King, Permanent Secretary (PS) of the Culture Ministry asked him if there was anything leading up to the incidents which raised the staff’s alert level to high. Somwar responded that “there was no indication whatsoever that anything of that nature would have happened on this location…I personally never thought anything of that nature would have happened.”
King though, said that one of the statements provided said that “students themselves would have been indicating all day long that ‘we gone bun down the place.’” To this Somwar said that his statements were in relation to the breakout.
King though, persisted in trying to get Somwar to say if any indications of a possible fire were given. “Were there any elements of any unusual thing going on? My concern is the warning system. The tracking system of changing behavior…Were there any warning signs before that? Didn’t that raise your alertness to high? I got the impression that nothing changed. You just did dormitory search,” the transcript read.
Somwar said that the afternoon following the breakout the Assistant Director of Youth suggested a dormitory search. He said that the dorms were searched in the presence of the police, but that he did not know “if we got an inkling.”
In relation to the fire, Somwar said “I never thought anything would have happened again and I can’t lie. Nothing suggested that after the night before (the night of the breakout) they would have attempted to do something more drastic the following night. No report came to me other than when the Assistant Director said we must be on alert.”
When Somwar appeared before the COI again though, he altered his position after he was briefed on contradicting statements made during the COI.
Moore told Somwar that “after the mass breakout (which was one of a three pronged approach called BBM – Breakout, Burn Down and Murder) we were given one view that there was some level of alertness and searches were being carried out but nothing serious was found.
Some students were afraid to go into the dorm because they didn’t want to be burnt. There was real fear,” Moore told Somwar.
It was at this point Somwar offered new information. “With regard to the statement I made where searches were carried out, I should retract that part and say that when I went through my files, the morning of the 23rd was calm but later in the day the Assistant Director was here (and) some information was passed to him by two young ladies to do some harm in the night – either burn down something of the sort,” he said. Still though, he maintained that “nothing indicated that there would be a fire.”
At this point the PS stepped in, informing Somwar of the myriad of warning signs he believes were not taken seriously enough. “There were clear threats of fire. Students were telling staff of fire, staff being afraid because they heard there was going to be a fire, staff looking out with student(s) at billet No.3 for fire,” King told Somwar.
Faced with King’s statements Somwar agreed that “students did make complaints about suspicion of fire,” and that “probably a hundred percent fool proof plan was not in place for the eventuality of what took place.”
According to Somwar, acting on the advice of the Assistant Director, the senior staff met to review their procedures, and decided to increase vigilance and strengthen the dorm system. As opposed to having just one Dorm Supervisor in the dorms on the night of the 23rd, Somwar told the COI that “supervision was strengthened in the dorm by two. Two in the senior, two in the intermediate, and two in the junior dorm.”
However, retired headmaster and member of the Teaching Service Commission, Maydha Persaud, also a commissioner in the COI refuted Somwar’s claims that the dorm supervisors were doubled. “The dorms were not doubled,” Persaud told Somwar. Following up, Moore said “the people who were actually there said the arrangements were normal, that there was no doubling up…I don’t know what the plan was but the implementation did not happen.”
Moore’s and Persaud’s position were influenced by the offerings of students and other staff members, the draft transcript of the COI suggests.
Mark Dover, the Administrative Manager of the institution, told the COI that “informally there were bits of talking about fire but nothing formally but we still prepared. It had some students saying I gone bun down this place like (student’s name) so we act on these talks.” It was Dover who also told the COI that there was no doubling of supervisors in the dorms.
“I cannot recall we had reinforcement in preparation for the 23rd. We don’t have the resources to have two persons. I am not aware of any doubling. From the 22nd to the 23rd it remained one dorm supervisor. We don’t have resources to double up. We didn’t double up in the dorm, we did it in the yard,” Dover said.
Tessa George, one of the Dormitory Supervisors, testified to having checked the dorms with other staff after “they said they will light.”
One student told the COI that “somebody tell Miss Marlyn that it gonna get a fire inside the dorm.
She is the wash bay lady. She said no fire can’t happen. She and Ms. Hendricks, the kitchen staff search the dorm and they aint find anything. The night I was in No. 2 and all I see is fire. The girls spray fire extinguisher and spray mattress and light fire.”
Vetsu Jeffrey, the Social Worker who worked at NOC at the time said “the afternoon of the 23rd one child come and said I not sleeping in the dorm. We asked why and the child said I don’t want to die in the fire. At that time we got the police and everybody and we searched the dorm. “We didn’t suspect, we saw no matches, no lighters, nothing nothing. We searched and everything was quite alright,” she said.
Another dorm supervisor, Nicola Dover, said “on the night of the 23rd I worked dorm 1. Three females from the No.1 dorm refused to go upstairs because they heard the place was going to burn. They told me that. I didn’t tell anyone. I persuaded them to go upstairs. We watched a movie. Their eyes were on dorm 3…a student went to the window and saw a fire.”
Another student said “when I heard about the fire, I told the Centre Administrator and he said nothing like that gone happen”
Testimonies given by several students and staff suggested that the residents who started the fire did so with gasoline from NOC’s store room and matches from the kitchen.
One of the residents was fingered as the one who provided the matches but she denied the claim. According to one resident, the fires and breakout were perpetrated because they were not pleased with conditions at NOC.
“The reason why the students did those things is because they want a better life, better treatment. The staff spoils our reputation, They raise their voice… They bun down the place because they aint treating we nice. They cannot control me. I’m ready for them”, he said.