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Posted: Tuesday 4 August, 2020 at 12:00 PM

Address to the Nevis Island Assembly on July 31, 2020 by Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis Dr. the Honourable Timothy Harris, Observing the 50th Anniversary of the Christena Disaster (1st August, 1970)

By: Dr. the Honourable Timothy Harris, Address

    As Prepared for Delivery


    Mr. President Sir:


    50 years ago today, the Associated State of St. Kitts and Nevis suffered a catastrophic ferry loss when, on the afternoon of Saturday 1st August 1970, the MV Christena, a government owned and operated ferry, took on water and sank as it entered The Narrows just off Nags Head.


    50 years in the life of an individual or country by any stretch of the imagination is a significant timeframe, which can impact two generations, therefore I join with you in this memorial ceremony to observe the very traumatic event that is part of the history of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. Today we are here to remember, pay tribute to, and honour the legacy of those who lost their lives in the Christena Disaster. We also offer solace to the survivors who are still with us and to the families of those who perished.


    Each year this ceremony brings back vivid and detailed memories of that catastrophe. I believe that those of you who were adults at that time can recall exactly where you were when it happened, and how you reacted. No doubt, from time to time you the survivors and families of the victims react to triggers which remind you of the pain and horror associated with this horrific event. But no matter how painful, it is an event we must never forget.


    In the history of all great people and Nations, there are defining moments that last throughout the ages. Some are economic. Some are political. Some are natural, while others are social. Then there are those seemingly singular events that touch, affect and effect, all segments of a society. The sinking of the MV Christena on August 1st, 1970 was such an event for the people of St. Kitts and Nevis. Nevis bore the brunt of the loss of lives, and the hurt to the economy and people; but let it not ever be mistaken, or indeed taken that this was somehow a Nevis disaster. This event must be documented and viewed as it was and is … a National disaster of St. Kitts and Nevis that engulfed the entire Associated State of St. Kitts and Nevis with its strong family ties, friendships and work and business relationships.


    We are here fifty years later to recall this tragedy, and to remember the two hundred plus souls that perished when Christena slipped below the waves. We come too to celebrate the strength and resilience of the ninety-one (91) survivors. It is testament to the transformative nature of the event on the Nation: on the people of Nevis and the people of St. Kitts. But on a day like today, when we gather to remember, we must be mindful of the fact, and sensitive to the reality that this day with its ordeal is something survivors like Livingstone Sargeant, Oswald “Ozzy” Tyson, Diane Williams-Richards and Ian Kelsick would never forget. Nor would the family of Ivan Buchanan, then Chief Public Health Inspector forget. It was a young Kittitian doctor, named Dr. Kennedy Simmonds who treated the first survivors at the Alexandra Hospital. Later on that day, the late Dr. Cuthbert Sebastian from the Island of St. Kitts would take over from Dr. Simmonds continuing the care and treatment of the survivors on Nevis.


    Back then, those two men had no idea what history had in store for them; they were just doing what needed to be done for their fellow citizens. I say to all of you who are working day in and day out, putting country above self, that God will bless you. You do not know the hour or the day, so be open to God’s grace every day.


    Then Dr. Kennedy Simmonds now Sir Kennedy is here today as our 1st Prime Minister and only living National Hero. He became our first Prime Minister on September 19, 1983 after negotiating the St. Kitts and Nevis Constitution Order 1983, which provides the supreme law in which the relationship between the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis and our government and people are to be constructed.


    Our second Kittitian Doctor, Sir Cuthbert Sebastian 26 years after the Christena Disaster would rise to the pinnacle of national service as the 2nd Governor General of an Independent St. Kitts and Nevis on January 1st, 1996.

    If National tragedy indeed tests the mettle of a people, the people of Nevis and St. Kitts demonstrated superhuman strength and resilience immediately following the disaster, and in the ensuing 50 years. It is said that every family in Nevis lost someone. Indeed, losing two hundred plus citizens in a single event from a small population would test the fortitude of even those who were not onboard. A disaster by any measure, the raw numbers, or per capita, it is still the worst maritime disaster in the English-speaking Caribbean.


    The loss of so many lives at one time was incomprehensible. The victims included people from all walks of life. Rich and  poorperished. Parents lost children. Some parents lost their only child. Others lost as many as three children. Children lost parents and became orphans. Errol Liburd and his siblings come to mind. Households lost breadwinners. Husbands and wives lost spouses. Some families lost several members. Family life was shattered in many cases. The victims included three (3) Canadian nuns.


    Every community in both St. Kitts and Nevis was affected by this tragedy. Everyone in St. Kitts and Nevis had a relative, a friend or acquaintance, or co-worker who had either perished or survived. The trauma and the pain were overwhelming. Survivors suffered physical injuries. They endured mental and emotional problems then and for many years after. Some continue to suffer up to this day. Communities were devastated. 

    Consider Oswald “Ozzy” Tyson who lost his mother, sister and two brothers. Left practically alone, (by his own account), he was raised by the grandmother of a fellow survivor. That survivor, Livingstone Sargeant was only ten years old at the time of the sinking. They have become lifelong friends. Only twelve years old when he went into the water, Ozzy survived the ordeal, and the trauma of loss to become a successful businessman, and later an author; having documented his ordeal in a published book. It is this strength and resilience, in the face of calamity that has become characteristic of our Kittitian and Nevisian people that largely
    brought the islands and the Nation through this tragedy.


    Out of Tragedy


    Unfathomable then, and maybe even incomprehensible now, is the purpose of such tragedy. There are those of us who may say even now that there is no purpose in such colossal loss of life and deep human suffering. But we are mindful that we believe in an Omnipotent God and an existence where nothing happens but by His Will. And if it is His Will, then there must be purpose.


     We may never understand the why of this tragedy on this side of eternity, but we know that we can cling to the knowledge that God does not willingly grieve or afflict us.

    On consideration, I would want to believe, and to encourage you also to believe that His Purpose was to ignite in us that strength and resilience; togetherness and shared responsibility necessary for us to forge and build an independent St. Kitts and Nevis. Even today, in the face of this COVID-19 global pandemic threatening our economic gains and social norms, we must rely even more on that strength, resilience and shared responsibility exhibited and embedded in us a half century ago,when Christena slipped below the waves of the Narrows.


    Let us therefore no longer look upon or refer to those who perished or those who suffered the ordeal as victims, but as heroes – heroes whose sacrifice forged in us those characteristics that have ensured our continued success as a people and a Nation. As we enjoy unprecedented cooperation between the islands, no longer is it sufficient to remember them. We must honour them.


    Quo Vadis


    Very importantly, the Christena Disaster highlighted serious deficiencies in ferry and other areas of maritime safety. Out of this tragic and painful situation came positive impacts both for individuals and for the country as a whole. As Susan L. Taylor once wrote, “In every crisis there is a message. Crises are nature’s way of forcing change. …so that something new and better can take its place.”

    While in some ways this disaster caused much bitter sorrow and exposed rifts between St. Kitts and Nevis, in many ways it also demonstrated the capacity of our people to work together to mitigate the immediate situation and to build a better future. The fact that by 1983 we were ready to move forward as an independent nation albeit with clauses 110 and 113 is an indication of the maturity of our leaders then and now. They knew that in spite of their insular stance, the whole of St. Kitts and Nevis was greater than its individual parts and embraced the big picture. They knew the truth of the parable in 1st King chapter 3 verses 16 - 28. The baby could not be divided in 2 – half for Nevis and a half for St. Kitts. They opted for unity. It also emphasized how intertwined the people of St. Kitts and Nevis really are.


    Many vessel operators from both St. Kitts and Nevis immediately rose to the challenge, gave of their expertise and other resources to rescue passengers and recover the dead. Medical and other health personnel from both islands worked hand in hand to provide relief.


    There were many people of good will who reached out and provided care for orphans and gave comfort and support to the devastated families.


    Over time, this tragedy has helped us as a people to build character, confidence and resilience and develop coping mechanisms to deal with and address this horror that was beyond our individual and collective comprehension. Our faith  in God sustained us. With strength and courage, we nurtured each other and grew stronger each day. We picked ourselves up and carried on rebuilding lives and livelihoods. Despite the trauma and the scars, St. Kitts and Nevis looked optimistically to a brighter and stronger future.


    It must be noted that the Christena Disaster led to significant changes and improvements in maritime safety regulations and protocols. Today we are the beneficiaries of such improvements. These include regular inspection of maritime vessels, limits on number of passengers, provision of life jackets, and certified and experienced operators and crew. Today citizens, residents and visitors can travel between our two islands confidently with the knowledge that safety measures are in place and are being adhered to and that improvements are ongoing.


    The site of the Christena Disaster is an underwater heritage site, as it is the final resting place for the doomed boat, as well as for some of its passengers.


    My Administration will therefore consider implementing regulations that govern access by divers to the underwater wreckage site.


    I recall that the St. Kitts-Nevis Observer Newspaper interviewed me some 23 years ago for an article that was published on February 1st, 1997 titled “Sacrilege or History? Diving the Christena Wreck.” 

    At that time, I was Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. I said then that, “The area may be considered special and requires some policy.” I also said that it would be important to gain “some public consensus” on the matter of whether diving should be allowed at the Christena wreck site. Perhaps the 50th Anniversary is as propitious a time as any to put these ideas into action.


    Perhaps we can look at making it a protected or regulated wreck dive site, where, for instance, divers would only be allowed to view the sunken boat from the outside and they would have to avoid contact with the remains of the boat when taking photos and video.


    Legislation such as a Historic Wrecks Act would be required in order to preserve and safeguard St. Kitts and Nevis’ underwater cultural heritage of momentous importance to the people of St. Kitts and Nevis.


    Life is never without challenges. The Christena Disaster brought the noblest of the human spirit to the fore and taught us among other things that every challenge we face and navigate strengthens our will, our confidence and ability to conquer future obstacles.


    Let us continue to work together to face our challenges as a nation with unity, courage, resolve and an abiding faith in God.


    May it please you, Mr. President




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