“I found out many more things that the public has a right to know but that have been hidden so far. I encountered an atmosphere of frustration and intimidation, nourished especially under the previous BLP government. I met several individuals who were afraid to speak out for fear of loosing their jobs, bodily harm, or having their houses burnt down, if they ever went public with what they know. I will speak for them. And should the day come, I am prepared to testify in any court of law under oath.”
Prof. Hans G. Machel Will Name Names: Codrington Family Deaths Caused By Gross Negligence
FOREWORD TO OPEN LETTER
I wrote the appended ‘OPEN LETTER TO PM THOMPSON’ on the evening of January 26, the same day Barbados’ Prime Minister, the Hon. David Thompson, was prominently featured in THE BARBADOS ADVOCATE, denouncing a “conspiracy of silence and indifference” as well as “corruption, nepotism, and malfeasance” by the previous BLP administration. I then submitted this letter for publication to both THE BARBADOS ADVOCATE and THE DAILY NATION. Neither of them dared to print my submission, even though one of them had at first indicated to me in no unmistaken terms that they were intent on printing it word-for-word in their Jan 30 edition. I have no doubt that pressure was applied that forced this retraction. Thus, the conspiracy of silence continues.
But I refuse to be silenced. Five innocent people, the Codrington family, got buried alive when their house collapsed into a cave at Brittons Hill on August 26 2007 though a combination of gross ignorance and gross negligence. I am speaking out for them, for their relatives, as well as for all the good people of Barbados. I consider myself their servant. I have a moral obligation to speak out, not only to get to the truth, but also to warn and protect others from meeting the same fate.
I have not edited my open letter since January 26. Our small group of investigators has since learnt some additional explosive facts. Most importantly, construction near the ill-fated house had actually opened up a second hole in the cave system, in addition to the large hole that had opened up right at the house’s foundation (which was already reason enough to evacuate). Also, we now know the names of those who worked to remove the legal obstacles to built on the land that this house stood on, land that was not to be built on. We shall disclose this information in due time. For now, I am posting my OPEN LETTER in its original form, so that all readers can see what was deemed ‘too hot to handle’ by those who control Barbados’ two national newspapers.
Hans G. Machel
Open Letter To Prime Minister David Thompson
In his recent address at the DLP Report to the Nation Rally, Barbados’ Prime Minister, the Hon. David Thompson, spoke some brave and encouraging words. He denounced a “conspiracy of silence and indifference” as well as “corruption, nepotism, and malfeasance” by the previous BLP administration. Since about 2002, I had encountered all of these in my dealings with the BLP Government and civil servants regarding the Greenland garbage dump fiasco, and I have seen some of this in the context of the cave collapse at Brittons Hill in August 2007. To date, nobody has been held accountable for this tragedy, which claimed the lives of five members of the Codrington family. I am herewith appealing to the Hon. David Thompson to stand by his words to “Hold all accountable” (The Barbados Advocate from January 26 2009). Furthermore, I appeal to his government to enact legislation that places stringent conditions on construction.
As a geologist with nearly 30 years of experience and whose active research includes caves, I had been approached by concerned Barbadians to provide an expert opinion on the Brittons Hill cave collapse. During the past 4 weeks alone, I visited 15 caves in Barbados and also conducted numerous interviews with people directly or indirectly involved with the Brittons Hill tragedy. I also went into “Ground Zero”, where I took photos, measurements, and rock samples. I found out very quickly that the deaths of the Codrington family were entirely avoidable for two reasons: the house that they had lived in should never have been built on that site, and the imminent collapse of the huge cave underneath was not recognized or ignored.
I found out many more things that the public has a right to know but that have been hidden so far. I encountered an atmosphere of frustration and intimidation, nourished especially under the previous BLP government. I met several individuals who were afraid to speak out for fear of loosing their jobs, bodily harm, or having their houses burnt down, if they ever went public with what they know. I will speak for them. And should the day come, I am prepared to testify in any court of law under oath. I presented a part of my findings at a public lecture in Solidarity House on January 14 2009 entitled “Caves of Barbados – Wonders and Danger Underground”, which was widely reported in the local media. In this lecture I called the tragedy a case of “gross negligence”. I stand by these words, and shall elaborate.
The first reason for this assertion is that the cave under the ill-fated house reached a height of about 20 m and came within about 1 – 1.5 m of the surface at its shallowest. The cave had been known for decades, as many children and adults had played in it or visited the cave over the years, well before the time any house was built in this area. Most people did not notice, however, that the coral rock that makes up the cliff in this area is jointed, that is, it is separated into large blocks by deep-reaching cracks that provided access to copious amounts of rain water that had weakened the rock over time. Also largely unnoticed or ignored was the fact that rock matrix itself is brittle like crumble cake: I can break and disintegrate it with my bare hands.These facts alone render building a house on that particular site prohibitive.
Builder Of The Deadly House Is A Well-Known Public Figure
The second reason for my assertion is that the land on which the ill-fated house was built had a covenant or deed restriction attached to it for several decades, which limits what the owner of the land can do with it. This covenant stipulated that one shall not build on this land because of the cave underneath. I know of one person by name who had wanted to buy this land back in 1961 and was told at the time that he could not build on it. If this was a legally binding covenant, one has to ask whether it was legally removed before the ill-fated house was built, when, why, and by whom. Permit to build the Codrington’s house was issued in 1982. Alternately, did the builder of the house (who is a well-known public figure in the island) know about the covenant, or was he left in the dark by the previous owner who sold the land to him without full disclosure? If the builder of the house knew about the covenant, did not have it legally removed when it was legally binding, and yet he built the house anyway, this person has blood on his hands.
Who Decided To Continue Construction In The Few Days Before The Cave Collapse?
Despite all this, the tragedy could have been avoided, had somebody not made a fateful – and as it turned out fatal – decision in the days preceding the cave collapse. There was an active construction site nearby that caused serious vibrations in the ill-fated house and those around it, which was felt by numerous inhabitants as far as several houses in each direction. Furthermore, about 3 weeks prior to the cave collapse one neighbor spotted a hole in the ground that had opened up right next to one corner of the ill-fated house, about 2 1/2 feet in diameter with no bottom in sight: a gaping black abyss. Unbeknownst to him, this was the large cave that would swallow the Codringtons later on. He reported this hole to the workers at the construction site nearby. Construction was halted about one week later, yet resumed about 4 days before the cave collapsed entirely, killing the Codrington family. How could this happen? There were serious vibrations all over the neighborhood, and the top of the cave had already started to open up. What more was needed to stop construction and evacuate the people in the house over the cave? Whoever ordered construction to resume after it was halted temporarily, despite these glaring indications of impending doom, is either grossly incompetent or grossly negligent.
I have also learnt that a fairly thorough investigation was undertaken by technical experts, that is, by geologists, hydrogeologists and engineers, in the months following the cave collapse. Apparently a preliminary report was finished in December 2007 under the previous BLP administration, a final report was finished about July 2008 under the current DLP administration. Yet this report is hidden from the public. Just why? The public has a right to know. On behalf of all Barbadians, I request that the findings of this report be made public immediately, and that they be part of a proper, impartial and open Coroner’s Inquest, which the public has demanded for a long time. Prime Minister Thompson, stand by your words: hold all accountable !
Looking into the future, I feel compelled to point out that many more houses were built on precarious ground in Barbados, especially in the Brittons Hill area. I have visited one particular cave just last week that is in relatively close proximity to the one that swallowed the Codringtons. This cave is about 60 m long, with variable heights of up to about 8 m, large enough to lead to another fatal collapse. This cave is slanted and comes to within 1 to 2 feet of the surface. Luckily, no house is built on the shallowest parts of the cave, which could collapse under a load as small as a heavy truck. Parts of the cave are supported only by narrow pillars of rock (see photos) that can topple under minor earthquakes or vibrations from construction, and sooner or later they will give way from continued erosion by groundwater. The rock here is the same crumbly stick-coral rock that forms much of Brittons Hill, especially along the cliff face. And yet, this cave underlies a densely developed part of the area with residential houses and schools nearby. Obviously, nobody cared or cared to check for caves and brittleness of the rock when this area was developed. This may have been understandable 20 or 30 years ago, but it is inexcusable now. Legislation should be enacted as soon as possible that puts stringent conditions of ground testing on any developer.
Furthermore, owners of the houses already in place in this area, especially along the cliff face that the Codrington’s house was located on, are well advised to have their properties scanned for caves, which can be done at relatively little expense with tools such as ground-penetrating radar. I would go as far as to recommend ground scanning for caves elsewhere in the island, wherever the rock is relatively brittle. On the other hand, there is no reason for panic. The coral rock is well cemented and hard as concrete in many locations. Where this is the case, the rock can carry very heavy, multi-story structures even with caves underneath.
Hans G. Machel
Professor of Geology
Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta