Remembering the GAS RIOTS of April 1999
It started at about 9:30 am on the Monday morning, April 19, 1999. Just like that. Jay remembered it well as he had just walked away from the Main Gate and got to a site check point when everything outside the plant went crazy.
News from all over the island was that people were blocking roads, lighting old tyres, rubbish and derelict cars in response to the government imposing a tax on gas. People came out in their thousands, everywhere, all over the island. Total lock down.
Jay went back to the Main Gate and out onto the road. But not far. What a scene. Looking left towards Six Miles and right towards Three Miles, all he could see were hundreds of people moving garbage, old iron, tyres, tree stumps & derelict vehicles, placing them in the road and throwing gas on what could be lit. The smoke from burning tyres was acrid, and people had rags over their lower faces.
Vehicles started driving any side of the three lane carriageways they could, just to try and get away from the mayhem. Fires were burning all along the roadway, people gathered at each side off the main, throwing more debris into the road.
A car pulled up outside the Main Gate and a man started putting old tyres across the road, blocking the exit. Jay ran out into the road with M and took up the tyres before the man could light them on fire, and the man drove through the entrance gate and started swearing at them. Jay told him to go block the road elsewhere, so the man took up the tyres and placed them in his car and drove off, telling Jay and M what they could do to themselves!
They met and discussed options. Everyone decided that the business should close and everyone be sent home but the question was how. With the roads blocked all over the place, how could they ensure safe travel for everyone?
Gunshots were firing off everywhere. As far as Jay could see along Spanish Town Road there was chaos. Neither the Police nor security firms were able to move around. People driving on the road were in a panic, wanting to get away no matter how. They had called in the trucks that had already left the plant for the day. They all came in safely, the big rigs stopping at the nearest depot in the country.
A car was forced to stop just down from the Main Gate exit. There was a baying crowd around the car, scavengers, pushing and shoving and rocking it back & forth. Jay and M rushed out, pushed through the crowd and brought it back into the plant. The driver was a visitor (born in Jamaica but living in the UK ) with his wife and two young children, and they were panic struck. Jay took them into the plant and down to the canteen, and for the rest of the day fed them and looked after them. They had started out for a peaceful weekend on the North Coast, their first holiday in Jamaica as a family together.
Shortly afterwards a bread truck was stopped by the crowd at the same place, and within minutes was looted and set on fire. The driver got away safely, leaving the burning truck where it was, people running down the road with loaves of bread, laughing.
A call was made to a contractor who lived across the road. He used to be a community leader for one of the political parties. Jay told him they wanted an escort to take people out safely by convoy. Thirty minutes later, he turned up with about 40 men from his community. They were on bicycles, motorcycles and foot. There were two cars as well.
The first convoy drove out, about 65 cars in all, heading for Half Way Tree. Jay put the UK “visitor” and his family in the middle of the convoy. Constant phone calls told him everyone got out and home safely, the visitor in his hotel.
An hour later the “soldier” escorts returned, all smiles and noise, and a second convoy left the plant with about 50 cars, heading for Portmore and Spanish Town. Who didn’t drive a car was given a ride. Everyone got home safely.
Jay and M went through all the offices to ensure everyone had left. Jay stopped short at the door to the Conference Room – eight overseas auditors working away on their laptops, oblivious to what was happening outside. Their host had gone out with the first convoy and had forgotten all about his guests. Jay called D Man who brought the minibus around. The auditors were driven back to their hotel in New Kingston, D Man leaving the minibus at the Half Way Tree Police Station and walking home all the way to near Three Miles.
And then for those who were left. There were about 40 employees and they walked the plant shutting down everything. It was now early evening and Jay wanted to get everyone away and safely home. The security personnel and a few key utilities people stayed.
At about 6:00 pm they were ready to leave, and hit the road. This time they were on their own, they were the convoy, and Jay drove towards Six Miles, leading the way. When they got to the traffic lights at Seaview Gardens there were hundreds of people in the road. The Police were there and the 18 car convoy pulled up at the lights, awaiting instructions. The Police started clearing the road of the crowd, pushing the crowd back with batons and rifle stocks, and waved us on. It was a relief.
As Jay came parallel to Wray & Nephew a barrage of gunshots came from Waterhouse. Passengers ducked down in the cars. BB who lived in Waterhouse cried out, and didn’t bother coming out the Land Cruiser. At the Weymouth Drive intersection Jay pulled to the front of the convoy and blocked oncoming traffic until they had all passed through. They drove over & around road blocks; drove on sidewalks where they couldn’t continue on the road. Once they had everyone safely home or in their community, Jay headed home, dropping BB on Hope Road when he saw a rubbish collection truck and knew the driver. Demonstrators had punctured the truck’s tyres but the driver hadn’t stopped.
That night the GM decided they should all be at work the following day. Jay said there would still be chaos on the roads, and that if they were serious everyone needed to move early and be at the plant no later than 6:00 am, as the looters would more than likely be sleeping after their night’s activity. Any time later than that and the streets would be in turmoil again.
Sure enough the roads were quiet at 6:00 am on Tuesday morning – about 30 employees came to work. At the Main Gate a security officer who had been standing there the evening before showed us a scar on his shoulder and a warhead – someone had fired a bullet into the air and it had come down and grazed his shoulder.
By 9:00 am the chaos started again, gunshots firing randomly in the city. The GM called a meeting and asked what the plan of action should be. Jay almost laughed and said they all needed to go home, and called the contractor from Cockburn Pen.
Twenty minutes later they headed through the Main Gate. Jay drove an old Toyota Land Cruiser and took up the rear. The contractor and the GM were at the front. They skirted through debris, burning cars, tree trunks & utility poles, tyres and old refrigerators & freezers. Using both sides of the road and the sidewalks when needed. By the time they got to Three Miles Jay had four people hanging onto the Cruiser – one sat on the hood, one held onto the back, two were standing on the running boards, one each side of the van. With the weight on the running boards and the back bumper the Cruiser was almost looking up at the sky. The ‘soldier’ sitting on the hood of the Cruiser was singing away and shouting at people on the roadside, “Free up the blocks, free up the blocks”.
Every road block they came to all the way up Hagley Park Road was pulled aside to allow them free passage, with shouts from the demonstrators “Let the people through, let them through”. The convoy swung from one side of the road to the other, all the way to Half Way Tree. Conditions weren’t as bad there and the escort left them.
The following day the plant remained closed. Jay went out scouting on the road, through Liguanea, Old Hope Road, Cross Roads and Red Hills Road, Washington Boulevard and along Spanish Town Road and back up Hagley Park Road. There were still many signs of the damage done over the previous two days. Bulldozers and trucks were on the roads trying to clean up what they could. Police and soldiers had re-taken the streets. Everywhere was calm.
It was back to business on Thursday. Three whole days of production lost, and the tax on gas rolled back to what it was before. Was this people power, or frustration, or political manipulation, or poor decision making by a Government strapped of cash?
Or an insight into socio-economic conditions faced then, and still being faced now, by Jamaica, land of wood and water? Jay sensed the jury is still out deliberating.