October 6, 2016
I raced home from school late one hot afternoon to find my aged mother strangely in tears, sadly listening to our faded transistor radio permanently perched on the matching bright blue formica dining table that shimmered with flecks of gold and silver, like an early, starry night sky. As darkness fell and details trickled in, I desperately tried to visualise the deadly crash of Cubana Flight 455, mere hours before.
But it took the sombre 11 black and white photographs in the next day’s newspaper, especially of Sabrina Harripaul, like me, nine years old and wearing two long black plaits, to forever stamp the atrocity of the Caribbean’s first major terror attack into my growing consciousness.
Euphemistically and erroneously termed the Cubana Air Disaster, it is the region’s murderous 10/6. Today, four decades later I am still haunted by those two rows of serious faces – innocent, studious, thick spectacles, sun shades, seventies side parts, white school shirts, graying hair, glossy waves, natural afro…
Six top Guyana scholars, brilliant teenagers Harold Eric Norton, Ann Nelson, Rawle Thomas, Jacqueline Williams, Seshnarine Ramkumar and Raymond Persaud just 18 or 19, off in their fashionable, fresh clothes to eagerly study medicine.
Economist Gordon Sobha on his way to a conference in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), 22-year-old new mother and diplomat’s wife stylish Margaret Bradshaw who reluctantly decided to leave her two-month-old daughter with relatives, and finally perky Sabrina requiring urgent medical treatment, accompanied by her graceful grandmother Violet Thomas who favoured pearl studs and hairnet, and Violet’s daughter, the comely Rita Thomas.
For many it was their first – and last plane ride.
The average age of those on board was only 30 years, since of the 73 passengers there were 57 Cubans including the country’s entire international fencing team of 24 vivacious youngsters, who, in anticipation of the thrilling welcome awaiting them at home, proudly wore every one of the gold medals they had won, in fact – all – at the Central American and Caribbean Championships in Venezuela days before. One excited older fencer Nancy Uranga was pregnant. Five crew members, officials and a delegation of visiting North Koreans completed the manifest.
We know now that two timed C-4 explosives were taken on to the aircraft in Piarco International Airport, crammed into a Colgate toothpaste tube and hidden in the rear bathroom of the plane by a sweating, jumpy Hernan Ricardo Lozano, 20, while his pal Freddy Lugo, a fellow hired Venezuelan gun, 27, quietly slipped one rigged camera bag under a midsection cabin seat before the two casually disembarked at the rainy Seawell Airport, Bridgetown and took another flight right back to Trinidad. Lozano had been so nervous he accidentally locked himself in and had to be rescued by one of the Cubana’s copilots who kicked in the washroom’s door. Later, he broke down completely, lamenting, “Damn it Lugo, I’m desperate and feel like crying. I’ve never killed anyone before.”
Seven minutes after take-off, around 1.23 pm as the Canadian-leased Douglas DC-8 ascended to 18,000 feet over the island, the first bomb exploded rocking the huge jet. “Fire! We have an explosion aboard!” Captain Wilfredo Perez, 36 was incredibly calm and his voice steady as he alerted Barbadian Air Control, ordered his Flight Engineer, Ernesto Machin to instantly check and report on the damage while he urgently tried to stabilize the plane and head back. “We have a fire on board! We are requesting immediate landing! We have a total emergency!”
The crew prepared as the screaming intensified. Minutes later, the second devastating device detonated and the four-engine craft started to descend rapidly. “Hit the water! Felo, hit the water!” urged one of the co-pilots, using the captain’s nickname.
The experienced Perez quickly realised there was indeed no hope of saving his charges and heroically steered the massive burning airliner, away from residential areas and the alarmed tourists and stunned locals on the famous white sands of the crescent shaped Paradise Beach, towards the placid turquoise waters just off swanky St James. At 1.28 pm all communication abruptly cut off and two minutes later CU Flight 455 disappeared forever from the radar screen and into history, as it plummeted towards a dangerously, deep part of the Caribbean Sea.
Dalton Guiller had finished a round of waterskiing and was refueling his boat on shore when a roar in the sky startled and puzzled him, he recalled in a 2011 interview for CounterPunch Magazine. An apparently damaged airliner was fast approaching from the west towards the beach. “It didn’t look right. It was too low. Then I saw the plane rise slightly, bank to the right and crash into the water, nose and wing first.”
At the nearby Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) which overlooks the area, Professor Cecilia Karch-Braithwaite also heard the loud droning of a smoking red, white and blue passenger plane ahead. She related to Washington-based attorney Jose Pertierra who wrote the article, “It was unusual because the aircraft was flying too low and was on a path that planes never take when they approach the airport.”
Guiller rushed to the crash site. “I was with two other chaps, and we went to see whether there were any survivors. Unfortunately, there were none.” Surrounded by the over-powering stench of fuel, he surveyed the emerging horror. “I saw suitcases, seats, and personal effects. I saw bodies, only one or two of them intact, they were not full bodies” he remembers. “They were suspended at the level of the sea. Perhaps the seat belts cut them off, I could not tell. It was just striking that two or three of the bodies were perpendicular under the sea. Trousers, but no tops. Top, but no bottom.”
One of the few recovered was the broken body of little Sabrina. “Body of a girl around nine years of age… Brain missing, only facial bones, scalp, and hair remaining.
Lungs and heart destroyed. Liver and intestines shattered. Buttocks missing on right lower limb. Compound fracture of tibia and fibula…,” the forensic report performed by a Barbadian coroner stated, Pertierra reported.
Guyana took 36 years to even erect a monument. Adjacent to the Barbados west coast crash site, a grey obelisk stands as that country’s memorial on the sweeping shores of Paynes Bay, like a stark, stone sentinel staring out to sea, sparely engraved in 1998 with all the names of those who perished. The slender outline of a classic bird immortalized in flight symbolizes the aloft airplane. The doomed jet and its grisly remains of 58 people trapped in their cold watery grave lie nearby 1,500 feet down.
In 2005 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a report quoting an informant in Caracas, as saying that while in Trinidad, Lozano had telephoned one of the two masterminds, both closely associated with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the late Orlando Bosch with a coded message in Spanish: “A bus with 73 dogs went off a cliff and all got killed.”
The other planner who also escaped any earthly punishment, white-haired Luis Posada Carriles, 88, is indeed a very sick, splotchy-skinned man, protected and cared for in the wealthy, influential and closely knit Cuban exile stronghold of Miami, being highly regarded there as a “great” hero, following the 2007 dismissal of all bizarre charges against him of illegal presence on US territory. “I believe in God,” declares Roman Catholic, Luis, branded the living “Osama bin Laden” of Latin America and the Caribbean. When he remembers, and in between the coughing, green-eyed Posada prays to outlive the enduring object of his intense hate, atheist Fidel Castro, 90.
- ID thinks back to her poor father hanging his head in silence when she pestered him in 1976 about the Cubana bombing “Why?” She is still struggling to answer the same question from her 18-year-old Barbadian son who is studying at Cave Hill.