BELIZE CITY, Mon. Nov. 30, 2015–Shadisha Arnold, 16; Anna Carlos, 16; and Elizabeth McKoy, 14, perished in a tragic fire on Saturday, November 28, at the Youth Hostel, located at Gracie Rock Village, Mile 21 ½ on the George Price Highway – a fire that the hostel says was caused by the girls themselves, who were on lockdown after escaping earlier from the institution.
Today, the police and the Ministry of Human Development held a joint press conference to discuss what transpired on Saturday afternoon. There, it was revealed that protocol for the hostel had not been followed. Starla Bradley, director of the Community Rehabilitation Department, said that the girls, who had run away on the previous day, Friday, but were captured by police and returned to the facility, and who had planned to run away again, should have been thoroughly searched by a female officer and if this was done, they could not have had something with which to start a fire.
Also, it was against protocol to have the doors locked with a padlock, Bradley said.
Bradley said that at the time of the incident there were two female officers on duty. One of the female officers was with one group of girls watching a movie, and the other was supervising another group of girls on the basketball court.
“Nights and weekends when we don’t usually have all the administrative staff present, there is usually an assistant supervisor that is on the compound who is usually in charge should an issue arrive, plus two supervisors and then the chief supervisors, who would work on Saturdays, who are responsible for managing the staff and to ensure that protocols are followed,” Bradley said.
Bradley said that the girls who perished in the fire were three of four girls who had run away and were put on lockdown – confined to their room, which 3 of them shared, and it just so happened that the fourth girl has her room in a separate building. These three girls were temporarily housed in a wooden structure until their dorms could be completed.
Ismay Williams, Elizabeth McKoy’s cousin, said the facility was a holding facility equipped with beds and a bathroom where they were on lockdown for 24 hours as a disciplinary measure.
It is believed, Bradley said, that the three girls on lockdown were planning another escape. The plan was to start a fire and when those in authority would come to their aid to put out the fire, the girls would use the opportunity to escape.
One of the girls lighted a pillow to put their plan in motion, but something went terribly wrong, and the fire got out of control. By the time the officers were alerted and made attempts to open the padlock, it was to no avail, Bradley said.
Bradley added that, “Some persons attempted to break through at the back of the wooden building, but by the time they had broken through, the fire had already engulfed the building and the children could not be saved.”
Superintendent of Police Hilberto Romero said that a call came into the Police Department at approximately 2:29 p.m., to which they responded. When they arrived at the Youth Hostel, located in Gracie Rock, they saw a wooden structure on fire.
Romero added that sometime after arriving at the scene, it was revealed to them that three female minors were trapped in the inferno, and later they retrieved the three bodies, which are now at the morgue. Romero said that the doctors are working with the families of the girls to try to identify the charred bodies.
Orin Smith of the National Fire Service told Amandala today that at about 2:34 p.m., the Fire Department received a called informing them of the fire. Smith said that they arrived at the Youth Hostel at 3:05, but by that time the fire was a full blaze, but they managed to extinguish the flames by 3:20 p.m.
Smith said, “The fire originated in a holding cell and everything was burnt; the only remains were the iron bunk bed frames.”
Smith added that earlier this year on March 31, there was another fire at the Youth Hostel, where a female inmate burnt a concrete dormitory. Smith said, “It appears that it is a habitual practice of the inmates to set the place on fire as a form of retaliation.”
Judith Alpuche, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Human Development, said “We are not by any stretch of the imagination pretending that the system is perfect, but we have been working very diligently to fix the system.”
Alpuche said that three persons have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, adding that they have ordered an independent investigation into the matter, which will be carried out by Margaret Nicholas, Director of the National Committee for Families and Children.
Also, she said, UNICEF will be supervising the investigation in order that “clarity” may be arrived at.
Bradley said that, “One of the grave challenges we have is trying to change a culture that is used to doing things in a lax way, and we have been struggling with this – trying to get people to understand that these policies are in place for a reason.”
She stressed that not following protocol is what creates tragedies like this one, and they have been trying to find suitable staff who understand procedures and the need to follow protocol, and in an effort to find appropriate staff, they have recently changed management and terminated six staff members.
Bradley said that they have worked hard to strengthen the facility, including putting in place a counseling team and a clinical supervisor to meet the psychological needs of the children, and they contracted an international consultant who has been training the staff to deal with children who appear to have severe disciplinary problems.