Fire service wasn’t prepared to fight prison blaze, terrified residents say

A view of the burnt out Georgetown Prison at Camp Street

Despite the lessons that should have been learned from last year’s deadly fire at the Camp Street prison, witnesses say both the Guyana Fire Service and Guyana Water Inc (GWI) were not prepared for the fire that devastated the jail on Sunday.

Residents in the area surrounding the prison told Stabroek News that the two fire tenders that showed up to battle the flames soon ran out of water and were unable to access any from the hydrant at the corners of John and Bent streets, since the water pressure was too low.

“It wasn’t until about 9.30 that GWI come and turn something on it and then they put on a hose and it start giving water,” one resident told Stabroek News.

Another resident reported offering the firemen access to her black tanks as the fire raged. A third resident pointed Stabroek News to an unmarked hydrant.

He explained that for years he has asked both the prison service and GWI to place a marker at the location, without success. The area remains covered by wooden slates.

The resident noted that after he had identified the area to the firemen, they were able to use the hydrant to assist in dousing the flames that had already consumed the building.

On Sunday, inmates of the prison set at least four fires as a means to facilitate their escape from lawful custody. Stabroek News has reported that the first fire began just after 3 pm and by 8 pm all the wooden buildings had been razed.

Arriving on the scene at 4.15 pm, Stabroek News was there when the first two fire tenders arrived at just about 5.30 pm and attempted to douse the flames, which were emanating from the south western corner of the compound. Shortly after, the entire building burst into flames.  Warning shots from the police officers guarding the jail’s perimeter filled the air and the two fire tenders rushed to the south side of the jail in a bid to contain the fire.

‘We coulda dead’

These shots were the second set to ring out, and residents living in the area were at this point traumatised. They noted that the proximity of the prison has always made them feel unsafe but Sunday’s fire and riot solidified their belief that the centre of a residential area is no place for criminals to be housed.

“It really isn’t safe for us with the prison being here because look we coulda dead… They coulda run over here and invade us or hold us hostage or something,” one woman who resides in Bent Street lamented.

“When they started, there were no police around,” she said, adding, “the gunshots were terrible… I didn’t take it for nothing at first ’cause I thought it was squibs then we hear it again and I went to the bedroom window I saw a plain clothes person with a gun in his hand and then the police that was guarding here move back the barrier and start shoot.”

She added that “when I came down to the front here, I saw a smaller building where they does use to pray smoking and myself and some other neighbours from the barbershop were looking on and they say fire, fire, yuh in see the place smoking officer and I pick up my grandchildren, open the back door and run out and went in by some neighbours and we de still hear the gunshots and shouts of fire.”

Though she evacuated the building, the woman said she kept a watchful eye since she wasn’t sure whether or not her home would be affected by the blaze.

“What happen was that they had a fire at the other end first and the fire reel came and like they didn’t have water and I throw water on we building and then my sisters came and then my sons… till late last night [Sunday] we come back. The fire reel was there and the place was burning. They couldn’t get it [the hydrant] open. My sister even ask them if they want the tank water to help and it was so chaotic. In the midst of the fire you hearing gunshots. We saw a lot of prisoners up in the tower with their heads tie up and I was very scared to come out and scared for my grandchildren ’cause I frighten they shoot at us you know,” the woman said.

“I want it moved… Me ain’ want this jail here anymore because this is the second time something like this happened. I’d be glad if it could move because it really affecting us. Look we can’t even do business around here, we can’t do nothing and it’s scary. If it could move, it would be good, it’s really not safe for us,” she lamented.

One of the woman’s neighbours told Stabroek News that she was forced to take desperate measures in order to evacuate her home and avoid both the bullets and the heat of the flames.

She said she was lying down when she started hearing what she assumed were gunshots but did not pay attention. It was not until the shooting intensified and the neighbours in the yard raised an alarm that she realised what was taking place.

“My landlord turn and seh we got to evacuate and so we go through the alleyway because we couldn’t come out from the front because the shots were coming from all over. But before we left we start hearing the pelting and I see one of them trying to jump from the top. We even hear some of the prisoners hollering how they getting burn. I’m new in the area, so I only know of one entrance to my place. That was right were the bullets were coming from pow, pow, like squib. Thankfully, my neighbour knew about an alleyway and he show us,” she said.

The woman added that even with their shortcomings, the fire spread too fast for the fire service to contain.

“They didn’t even get to calm the fire because it just blaze right through; when here start to blaze fully, then it start on the other side ’cause like they start fires at different places all at one time,” she said.

Displaced

Like her neighbour, the woman remained resolute in her belief that the area was no place to house such a facility.

“I was still on the road minutes to 12 and when I asked if I can go back and they said only who living here could proceed so I went in back, but when I got in the yard I see the other tenants out on the road and they say that the police put them out,” the woman said.

“I went by the gate and went and call and they tell me I can’t sleep in here. They tell me just get what I want and leave the place…. yuh can’t sleep in there. So, I ask them where am I going to sleep, you can’t just evacuate and don’t have anywhere to put us and he said that’s their orders. I had to call a cousin and go by her.”

Another resident who spoke to Stabroek News complained about being verbally harassed by inmates of the prison while carrying out tasks in his yard. “You see them they would usually disrespect people. Since I in school I hear the jail supposed to move and up to now it can’t move but I feel is high time that they move it. This here is a disgrace. This place make nuff businesses close down because they got the road blocked off; when you come in here night time, they asking you where you living or where you going. Last time I try come through here to come home, they tell me I can’t pass,” the man lamented.

Giving his account of what happened, the man said, “When I get up at minutes after 4, I hear somebody shouting, ‘Fire! Fire!’ And I look and see fire at the back deh and fire in the middle plus I start hearing gunshots in there. Fire tenders didn’t come till almost an hour later and number two the water pressure… they had water but the water run out.”

It was this resident who told Stabroek News about the second hydrant.

“You know is when they know about the fire hydrant there? Last night, when I told them about it… GWI had to come and clear it with a key… they didn’t know it was there. They say is only one hydrant they got but I keep telling them that there was another one there. You know how much times I ask them to come and put a pole and come and clean it out but is only last night they come and find it. They say they will come and put a pole there but up to now they ain’ come… they ain’t servicing nothing,” he lamented.

Another individual speaking with Stabroek News from a Camp Street business claimed to have seen men who he assumed to be prison escapees running along Camp Street before hijacking a car at the corner of Hadfield Street and driving off.

He could not, however, offer a description of the men or the vehicle they reportedly hijacked, since he was more focused on securing his business place.

“I wasn’t really paying attention. After that firefighters came and were trying to stop the fire and they actually seemed like they were doing a good job but like half an hour after the building was already fully flamed,” he said. (By Thandeka Percival and Mariah Lall)

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