Commuters' safety on Berbice River crossing still a major worry By Daniel DaCosta
Stabroek News
September 9, 2002

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Six years ago on September 6, 1996 a young West Berbice student, Howaz Imran who was on his way across the river to attend school in New Amsterdam was crushed to death by a truck on the M. V. Makouria.

Five other students also on their way to school from the West Coast were injured when the truck rolled backwards pinning them against the side of the vessel on the lower deck.

On that fateful day scores of passengers were on the packed main [lower] deck in all available spaces. The deck is reserved for vehicles, motor-bikes and passengers with freight and cycles. The students and other passengers should have been on the promenade [passenger] deck above. As it turned out the students were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Following the accident, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the circumstances which led to the accident, to determine culpability and to make recommendations to prevent any similar accidents.

The court was also tasked with examining the system of operations of the New Amsterdam/Rosignol Ferry and making recommendations for the improvement of the safety of passengers. The commission commenced sitting on November 18, 1996 at the Blairmont Magistrate's Court and concluded on December 4, 1996.

Evidence gathered during the inquiry found that on approaching the New Amsterdam Stelling, the captain of the vessel made a sharp turn which coupled with the movement of passengers resulted in such a heavy list that the truck which was loaded with 440 cases of aerated drinks moved backwards.

The court found that "passengers were allowed to flock the main deck and no serious effort was made to get them to go to the promenade deck or to have them removed from in front and behind the truck. From the evidence it appears that it has become the norm for them to be there and no serious effort is ever made to dissuade them or control their movements." The court also found that the chocks used on the truck's wheels were grossly inadequate.

Yet six years after this tragic accident, passengers and students are still being allowed on the [main] lower deck on a daily basis. A Transport and Harbours Department [T&HD] official attached to the Traffic Department told Stabroek News this week that "the Department tries to enforce the regulations, which stipulate that passengers should not be allowed on the main deck.

Apart from this there are also signs on the stelling and on the vessels informing passengers that they should remain on the promenade deck." He however admitted that there is need for stricter enforcement of the regulations and education.

During the inquiry the mate told the court inter alia "normally I don't stop anyone from remaining on the vehicle deck." The court found that the children had no right to be on the main deck but they did so with the concurrence of the officers and crew who had accepted that as the norm.

It recommended that: no vehicle should be allowed in the gangway unless that is absolutely necessary; the turntable should be reactivated on all the vessels and trucks which cannot turn on it should not be accepted and adequate arrangements should be made for the assessment and checking of vehicles.

The commission further recommended that the ship's stairway must be properly controlled to prevent passenger movement from the upper to lower deck. An area, it said, must be reserved for passengers with cargo, motor-cycles and bicycles who should not be allowed to stand behind vehicles.

The commission also recommended that "there must be adequate police and security personnel at the stellings and the department must employ members of the Special Constabulary to exercise powers of arrest outside and on the stelling and on board the vessel."

However, according to the traffic official, the department's security personnel still encounter difficulties in the execution of their duties and recalled one guard being assaulted by one irate commuter.

An official of the department in New Amsterdam told Stabroek News that its policy in relation to access to the lower deck remains the same. "However, there is the human factor where some clerks still allow passengers on the lower deck."

"The department," he noted, "continues to play a recorded message at the two stellings on a daily basis reminding commuters that they are not allowed on the lower deck. There are also signs which remind them not to use the lower deck".

Yet scores of students and adult passengers are still allowed daily on the lower deck, testing fate and gambling with their lives. According to the court, "the crew members should be empowered to enforce all safety regulations and other rules against violators on board."