What happened with that bridge last Wednesday seemed to have been the result of inexcusable incompetence and I am surprised that the massive tragedy was not followed by a louder crescendo of outrage from the general public.
I wonder whether the muted response to a fiasco of this magnitude was because our public has become so saturated with pain that one more degree yields diminishing returns in its response.
Or perhaps it is because the victim of the fatality was a St. Vincentian and the other seriously injured victims were Guyanese. Perhaps if they were Kittitians there would be a greater show of collective emotion over the tragedy which snuffed out a life and seriously injured others?
Whatever is the reason for our approach to this tragedy, there is no question that it is indeed very serious. For a new brand bridge to collapse before even the first vehicle crossed it, is such a serious matter that it is going to be for a long time, one of our more serious national embarrassments.
The announcement by Minister Assim Martin that there will be a comprehensive enquiry into the matter does not console some people. These people are skeptical. They have already assumed that the result of the Enquiry will be business as usual. The dead man will be buried; his family will probably receive some kind of compensation. The injured may receive some money to salve their wounds, and nothing else will change. The same foreign firm which managed this outrage will continue to perform its dubious tasks.
These skeptics may or may not have a point. We will only know the outcome when it comes, but we hasten to warn Dr. Martin and whoever will do the Enquiry that when it comes to the collapse of a bridge in St. Kitts, nothing short of a thoroughly honest investigation would suffice, and nothing less than the unvarnished truth will satisfy the skeptical.
For bridges do not collapse in St. Kitts. As every Kittitian knows, St. Kitts is a land of bridges. There are so many ghauts all around the island that in the absence of bridges vehicular traffic would be impossible.
Bridges have been built in St. Kitts long before cars and trucks came to run over them. Before the roads were paved, bridges were built to connect the divide made by the ghauts which cut ravines throughout the island.
Bridges, like those at St. Paul and Ottleys virtually connect one half of the village to the other. Without the bridge at Jack-in-the-Box, travel by foot would be difficult and dangerous, between Cayon and Bayfords. Vehicular traffic would be impossible. Without bridges such as these the island would be broken up into inaccessible little remote villages.
These bridges were built to last. The very thought of them eroding with time or even collapsing from use was inconceivable when they were built.
In 1912, nearly a century ago, when the Sugar Factory was inaugurated, a network of railway lines was built for the transportation of sugar cane from all around the island to the Sugar Factory in Basseterre. At certain points the lines had to pass over ghauts and rivers. Bridges were built for the locomotives to run to and fro everyday of the year. During the Crop time, the locomotives carried enormous weight, in tons of sugar cane.
The Sugar Industry closed after ninety years. The Railways are still used. The bridges are still standing as strong as ever after nearly 100 years.
The Monkey Hill Bridge has been there forever offering the residents of the Village a safe road to go back and forth even in the most raging deluges. In 1898 when the historic flood engulfed Basseterre, the authorities learnt their lessons and built a wall from the top of the ghaut all the way down to Cayon Street. This wall has remained like a rock of defense preventing the torrents of whatever force from flooding the town.
The wall which everyone of every generation takes for granted guards the town for the next hundred years.
Some years ago, when College Street Ghaut seemed to be threatening the town again Robert Bradshaw mandated bridges at the water front to enable the mud and silt to flow freely into the sea. A permanent structure had to torn up to install that Bridge but the work was so professional that in all the years, nothing has broken.
A little more than twenty years ago a young Public Works engineer, just out of College under-took the assignment to build a bridge across the main road going into Tabernacle. The bridge still stands, braving the tides of Wash Ghaut whenever it flows.
In St. Kitts building good bridges is our thing.
In St. Kitts bridges are not built to collapse. The people who undertook to erect them in the past were extra-ordinarily careful how they built them, because, the idea of their collapsing was anathema.
Extra-ordinary care is the key concept in trying to find out why the bridge collapsed, and even the most casual survey of that project is sure to reveal that the work was not done with extraordinary care. Even the ordinary hose man whose job it was to spread the concrete, felt that something was amiss. When he looked at the scaffolding before launching into his work, he sensed that all was not well, but he was no engineer, no quantity surveyor, no technician, so in his innocence he thought, however reluctantly, that these qualified men knew what they were doing.
Now just suppose that the bridge was laid before the tumble happened and that while the men were smiling triumphantly at their finished work, the bridge came tumbling down. How many more lives would have been snuffed? Suppose again the bridge was completed and vehicles were traveling on it before its weakness yielded to the pressure! Can anyone imagine what a thing that would be?
Now I am not an engineer but I don’t have to be one to be able to say that the bridge collapsed because of bad workmanship at some level of the engineering. I am no prophet either, but I don’t have to be one to sound a warning to all about the bridge which this particular firm has already built.
Now that one bridge has collapsed I don’t think it is being unfair to revisit the other one to see whether it is just hanging by a thread waiting to collapse.
Which takes me back to the announcement by Minister Martin that he will launch an investigation. In the words of one of may grassroots friends, “De bridge bruck dung, wa investigation they want? Is bad wuk.”
According to my friend, the heads of the people responsible for this bad work should roll. I tend to agree, but let Minister Martin hurry up and have his investigation first.