As questions persist over the cause of the fatal mishap at Burma, Mahaicony that claimed seven lives, the mother of two of the six Augsburg students who died on Friday afternoon said she did not want to send them on the trip but had relented at the urging of their grandmother and teacher.
Teacher Shaundel Duke, 41, and six of her students, who were all residents of Burma, Mahaicony, were found in a vehicle that was overturned in a trench and they were all subsequently pronounced dead on arrival at the Mahaicony Cottage Hospital. Duke, who was driving the vehicle, was transporting 10-year-old Asiyah Abel, her eight-year-old brother, Joel Justin Abel, their seven-year-old cousin Rayden Abel, nine-year-old Atesha Woolford, her six-year-old sister, Azaliah Fraser, and their friend, seven-year-old Martina Persaud, who were returning together from a Mashramani activity at Calcutta, Mahaicony.
Police have stated that it is suspected that Duke lost control of the vehicle. It would appear that they were in the submerged vehicle for some time before it was spotted by a passerby, who alerted residents.
What caused the vehicle to end up overturned in the trench may never be known. However, Burma resident Lakeram Basdeo, who lives a short distance away from where the accident occurred, told Stabroek News that while no one can be sure of what actually happened, Duke might have skidded off the road, which has loose brick fragments. Also possible, he said, is that the car might have suffered some mechanical defect or Duke may have been tired.
Basdeo said shortly after 3 pm, he heard a shout for help from the passerby. When he got to the scene, the car was overturned with all its doors and windows locked. “Some guys from the area had to break a side window to get them out,” he added.
Basdeo said Duke was the first to be removed, followed by the six children.
It was discovered that the car’s air conditioner was on, which was why the windows were locked. He disputed earlier reports that two of the children were still alive when they were taken out of the car. “The water was settled back already in the trench, so it is highly unlikely that anyone was alive when they were removed from the car,” he said.
Basdeo also ruled out any suggestion that another vehicle might have been involved, while pointing out that the car had no visible sign of a collision. He also noted that the access road into the community does not have heavy traffic.
‘I kept saying that they not going’
“I kept saying that they not going,” an emotional Sharon Fraser, the mother of Atesha and Azaliah, said about the Mashramani activity at Calcutta Primary School. However, she explained that the children’s grandmother and Duke persuaded her to send them. She said that she got a call about 4 pm about the incident and by the time she got to the scene, the children were lined off on the bank of the trench, motionless.
The visibly exhausted mother of eight said that she would miss her daughters’ willingness the most.
Another relative, who also spoke about the girls, described Atesha as a willing child who always wore a smile. “If you say Atesha do this or that, she does run and come,” she added. Azaliah, she added, was mostly reserved but also willing to help family members in whatever way she could.
An overwhelmed Ronald Persaud, whose car Duke had been driving at the time of the incident, explained that Martina, his only daughter, was excited about the trip. He described her as “the boss” of the family, owing to her independent personality. “She was the main girl in the area,” another relative chimed in. The girl’s heartbroken mother could only manage to show this newspaper photographs of her daughter as she wept.
A relative of the Abels described the three children as outgoing. “We will miss everything about them,” he said. He highlighted the fact that the children lived in a Christian home and would even pray for sick relatives, just as they were taught to do.
Additionally, Duke’s family described her as a jovial person who loved children. She attended the very Augsburg Primary School she taught at, before gaining placement at the Mahaicony Secondary School. After leaving school, relatives said, Duke attended the Cyril Potter College of Education before returning to the community to teach at the Augsburg Primary School. Duke’s colleague, Jamelia Moore, said her last encounter with the teacher was on Friday morning.
“She left us in joy,” Moore said, as she explained that Duke was dancing to the Ed Sheeran song “Thinking Out Loud.”
“She tell me that stress ain’t gon kill she,” Moore tearfully mentioned.
Relatives of the students and teacher said that A Partnership for National Unity members, including leader David Granger, visited them yesterday morning. Senior officials of the Ministry of Education also visited relatives yesterday afternoon. Education Minister Priya Manickchand and Transport Minister Robeson Benn had visited the community hours after the incident and they offered condolences and met with relatives. “This is just an unspeakable loss right now… we will stand with them [relatives of the deceased] through this period,” said an emotional Manickchand on Friday night.
Singling out Duke, Manickchand said, “we lost a teacher here… I want to say to her family that we are deeply, deeply grateful for her service.” She added, “We are one teacher short; the nation will suffer for that.”