KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, CMC – At the Fancy International Pentecostal Assembly Church last Sunday, the main worship leader, Simone Ballantyne knelt on the floor as the congregation and other worship leaders sang.
“No one else will be able to give you that peace of mind than the lord,” she says.
Behind her, sits an elderly gentleman in a dark green suit. His head his bowed, his spectacled eyes closed, his clasped hand between his legs.
Ehud Myers is the pastor of the Fancy Apostolic Faith Mission Church, located across the street.
As the worship continues, Davanan Nanton a young man dressed in the same material as Ballantyne, is s busy trying to seat latecomers to the service.
The presence of Ballantyne, Myers, and Nanton worshipping together seems to underscore the theme of the service “The Power of Togetherness” and marks the 42nd anniversary of the church.
The service comes two days after Nanton and Myers were freed of seven counts of involuntary manslaughter, related to an accident two years earlier, in which seven students, including one of Ballantyne’s daughter’s died.
Myers was a guest of honour at the anniversary service for the Fancy International Pentecostal Assembly Church, where Ballantyne and Nanton are members.
But while there was togetherness in the church, elsewhere in the North Windward community, the parents of the dead children are still reeling from the decision of the court to uphold no case submissions the men’s lawyers had made on their behalf.
The seven students — Racquel Ashton, Chanstacia Stay, Glenroy Michael, Jamall and Jamalie Edwards, Simonique Ballantyne and Anique Alexander — died when their minibus careened down a hillside and into the rough sea at Rock Gutter, an uninhabited area between Fancy and Owia.
The bodies of Ballantyne and Stay were never recovered, and, within hours, the seas had shredded the minivan down to its chassis, leaving just three of the wheels intact.
Myers was the conductor on the minivan, which was owned his church, and spent almost two weeks in hospital nursing injuries he sustained in the accident.
Residents of Fancy had asked the church to transport secondary students to school in Georgetown and Kingstown, after a bus specially suited to the terrain that had been secured by the Rotary Club, had developed mechanical problems and was decommissioned.
The club had failed in its efforts to secure duty free concession from the government to provide another bus for the community, a settlement on St. Vincent’s east coast, and located 36 miles from the capital.
Nanton was the driver of the van on the fateful day, and notwithstanding his own injuries, went into the sea to rescue his passengers, later needing to be rescued himself, having become weak as a result of blood loss.
In 2015, a coroner’s inquest was held and based on the evidence compiled during the proceedings, which were closed to the public, Nanton, Myers and Colbert Bowen, a school principal were, in November 2015, charged with seven counts of involuntary manslaughter.
The charges against Bowens were withdrawn at the commencement of the preliminary inquiry last May.
And, after the 10-month preliminary inquiry, which included months-long adjournments, attorneys Grant Connell and Israel Bruce, argued successfully before Chief Magistrate Rechanne Browne Matthias that the Crown had not made out a case for their clients to answer.
In her ruling at the Serious Offences Court last Friday, the chief magistrate upheld the submission and told Myers and Nanton that they were free to go.
Gloridene Hoyte-John, the mother of one of the dead school children, said the decision did not come as a surprise.
“I was expecting a dismissal, based on online articles about the no case submission, but I was still hoping that the case would have gone to the High Court,” she said, noting that the grounds of the no case submissions were insufficient evidence.
Hoyte-John told iWitness News that she was looking forward to the case ending up in the High Court because of evidence presented at the inquest.
“The information we received, it was sound. The information regarding the vehicle and the reports from the mechanics who looked at the vehicle,” she said but declined to elaborate.
Another parent, Rochelle Ashton, said it has been difficult for her since the death of her daughter.
“I don’t have a day I don’t think of her. She was my best friend and everything to me. Without her, my life is not the same,” she said, adding she was surprised by the decision of the court.
“It was a real surprise to me. I just can’t see why. I used to say to myself if no justice come, I leave everything in God’s hands and God knows best. That is my opinion because I know to myself my daughter’s life just went that way. And right now, my heart is full of so much pain,” Ashton said, bursting into tears.
Ashton had concluded that what occurred on January 12, 2015 was an accident, but could have been prevented.
“I know it was an accident but I know it was something that could have been avoided because everybody know the van was not working good,” she said, citing an alleged conversation between Nanton and mechanics that reportedly formed part of the evidence that came out during the inquest.
Nelsia Stay was shocked by the decision of the court.
“It’s like seven children and then Davanan and Mr. Myers, especially Davanan, he just walked away a free man. He was just set free,” said Stay, adding “I was hoping that Davanan would have gone to High Court and would have spent some time in prison.
“It would have helped all the parents in getting a sense of justice, that our children lives were not just thrown away like some animals or something,” she told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC).
Stay, a community health aid assigned to the Fancy Clinic, said she was at work when she received news that the no case submissions were upheld.
“My children were just wiping my tears. I just couldn’t cope on that Friday. I was just shattered. That was just so unbelievable. I couldn’t deal with it,” said, Stay, who is also mother to two other children.
Hoyte-John said that she still suffers from sleepless nights “but I think I am getting there.
“As a group, there is still a lot of pain,” she said, adding that the bereaved parents communicate often and this helps.
She hinted that the parents were considering other legal actions now that the criminal proceedings have ended.
“At this time, we are not into making any rash decision because we are still hurting, paining and crying and all that,” she added.
However, as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, Hoyte-John said that if there is something bigger at work surrounding the death of the children, “whatever it is, it would be revealed in its time”.
During the church service on Sunday, Minister Gaius Z. Toussaint, a guest speaker of “The power of togetherness”.
Among those listening to the sermon was detective Inspector Hesran Ballantyne, Simone Ballantyne’s husband and Simonique’s father.
He said he accepts the decision of the court and sees it as his duty to explain to fellow parents that the court reaches its conclusions based on the evidence presented to it and not based on what is said on the street.
He, however, says that based on his knowledge of the law, the court might have made a different decision had it heard the same evidence presented to the coroner’s inquest.