Two young brothers, who were at the Drop-in Centre for less than two days, perished in an early morning fire at the institution and the Ministry of Social Protection’s Child Care and Protection Agency (CCPA) said it took full responsibility for the tragedy.
Antonio George, 6, and his brother Joshua, 2, perished in the fire after they were trapped in the building. Twenty-nine other children who were at the facility escaped the blaze.
At a press conference yesterday, Head of the CCPA Ann Greene explained that the two boys, along with three other siblings were taken into the care of the centre on Wednesday, around 5.30 pm, after the agency received information that they were victims of neglect and abuse. “As it is customary, the Child Care and Protection Agency took the children for medical attention on the 7th and the medical certificate confirmed that the children were victims of neglect and maltreatment,” she said.
Greene explained further that after they collected the children from their mother on Wednesday, they had scheduled a meeting with family members, which was slated for yesterday morning, to negotiate whether they would be able to take the children into their care. However, tragedy struck before any such arrangements could have been made.
At the press conference yesterday, two of the supervisors that were tasked with taking care of the children gave accounts of what occurred from the moment the fire came to their attention.
“While upstairs we had no problems. The girls went to bed as per normal and let’s say about 12.05, I was sitting right next to the door [when] I observed the wire on the wall starting to give a whizzing sound. So I looked at it and I saw blue flames coming out of the box of wire and running straight up the wall,” Sharon Jones, Social Service Assistant, who was in charge of the girls, said yesterday. The visibly-shaken woman explained that when she realised a fire was starting, she started to panic and sprung up.
“There was a child right behind me and I grabbed at her and I said, ‘Fire! Fire!’ and I called out to Sir Hinds [the other social service assistant] to tell he that we got a fire upstairs. The girls, when they heard that, they start to scream, scrambling and pulling and tugging at me. So for me to ease them off me all I had to do was to take out the keys,” she explained. She said she gave the keys to one of the girls and told her to open the doors, which she did.
“…And I start to get the others out of the building and the fire kept going and going. There was a little baby and I had her first and I rest her down and I realised that I ain’t pick up back the baby again, so I ran around back the other side…Whilst I going around the other side, the little boy, Antonio, running coming at the other end, crying, coming to me. So I had to just barely duck under the bed because the flames starting to come down from the roof, and lean my body over and collect the baby,” the woman said. She explained that she had the baby in one hand and grabbed Antonio in the other, “when Hinds and a boy came in with some fire extinguishers in an attempt to contain the fire.”
“By the time I reach out the door, I ain’t realize the boy wasn’t with me anymore. We got out of the building and members out on the road start coming in to help…,” she added.
Rupert Hinds, who was in charge of the boys on the lower flat, recalled hearing some of the girls screaming in the upper flat. He said he subsequently heard his colleague shouting for fire and immediately woke the boys and told them to vacate the building. “I opened the door and all the boys come out. Some were sleeping and I asked those who were awake to rouse those who were sleeping and they did,” he said, while noting that after the flat was empty, he and one of the boys went upstairs with fire extinguishers to try to contain the fire but were unable to do so.
“Returning downstairs, I called 911 and the fire service but to no avail. …Children were evacuated and were on the street and the fire engulfed the top of the building. Whilst on the street, my colleagues told me that two of the small boys are upstairs in the building. We tried to get there but we could not get into the building and that’s all I can say,” Hinds added.
How it started
It was not determined how the two boys ended up being trapped in the building, but Stabroek News was told that the older brother had run back into the building—after he figured out that his little brother was still inside—in a bid to rescue him.
Greene said the ministry was taking full responsibility for the incident and will foot the full cost of the funerals. It will also be working along with the family to ensure the other three siblings and the mother receive all the support and help they need.
She said the remaining 29 children were taken to the Sophia Care Centre and the Halfway Home and are currently receiving therapy from specialists from the Georgetown Public Hospital.
Questions were raised on why there were only two persons on duty to take care of 31 children and Greene explained that normally, there would be three persons on duty and most of the time they would not have so many children to deal with.
Human rights activist Karen de Souza yesterday recalled that there was a fire in 2010 at the centre and questioned whether any preventative methods were taken since then. “I hope we are not going to hear it was an electrical fire or an act of God… I want to know exactly how it started and an open discussion about the measures taken from the previous fire from this one,” she said.
Greene explained that since the previous fire, the place had been refurbished and equipped with fire extinguishers, fire blankets and an alarm system. She also pointed out that the staff were trained to deal with a fire and they had a fire drill sometime last year.
Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence said it was a tragedy but should be used as a lesson to prevent such an incident from taking place again. “And so we have begun to work on some of the things. Even as the children are at Sophia, we have started to look at Sophia. We have to take it one step at a time but we are going to get it right.
“… Just yesterday I was over at the Palms having a meeting and one of the things we were talking about is a fire drill and planning how to deal with that. We were also getting reports about having a lift in place and all of that,” Lawrence said, while stating that there was more that could have been done.
“We are telling you what we know what has transpired. It is now for the technical people to give us a report and tell us what happened. We can only make assumptions. We heard from the house mother what she saw but it is only the fire service that can come back to us and say what happened,” she said, pointing out that more than $15 million were spent on refurbishing the centre.
Fire Chief Marlon Gentle told Stabroek News that the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) got a call about the fire two minutes after midnight. When fire tenders arrived on the scene, the upper part of the building had already been engulfed. Firemen immediately sprang into action and began rescuing those who were inside, he said.
He said the GFS will be seeking the help of the Government Electrical Inspectorate in the investigation.
The centre is run by the CCPA and usually houses children who are in difficult circumstances.
The centre was also hit by a fire in February, 2010, which also destroyed the upper portion. The centre was then rebuilt.
President David Granger said yesterday that said he was deeply saddened to learn of the tragic fire, which took the lives of the two children, according to a statement from the Ministry of the Presidency.
The President said he also has in his thoughts the other children who depended on the centre for shelter and support and who are, no doubt, traumatised by that horrific experience. He said he will work with the Ministry of Social Protection to ensure that counselling services are provided to the survivors.