On July 24, 2015, I was a Newsday intern, something I thought would be a fun way to earn extra cash over the July/August vacation period.
As it turned out, that day became one of the most memorable of my life, when I and two other reporters were the first media to arrive at the scene of an historic prison break which sent a city and a nation into a frenzy. It was a prison break much like the ones we see in the movies, complete with hostage-taking, and one that resulted in the death of a police officer and one of the escapees.
As an intern I was assigned to cover all things crime-related, supervised by senior reporter Ryan Hamilton-Davis. I had been on the job for just about two weeks when it happened, and in retrospect I realise how easy it is for the biggest story of a journalist’s career to happen by accident.
But maybe I should start from the beginning.
My mother had an important appointment that morning and I agreed to stay home to look after my younger brother and ailing father. I called then assignments editor Horace Monsegue to let him know that I would not be at work that day.
But Mom’s appointment wrapped up earlier than expected and she called to let me know I would still be able to go to work. I didn’t particularly feel like calling Monsegue again to irritate him, and I figured it would rain because of a dark cloud blowing over Laventille and Port of Spain. The combination was enough to deter me from wanting to leave home to chase murders, but my mother insisted I go to work, despite being late.
I reluctantly called Monsegue again, and he instructed that instead of going to our Chacon Street office, I should head to the Forensic Science Centre, St James to meet Hamilton-Davis to help with whatever stories he was working on. In transit from my Laventille home to St James I recall thinking of what a waste of time the assignment was.
For those who don’t know, visiting forensics places the media in uncomfortably close proximity to grieving families whose relatives have died of other than natural causes. These people, understandably, tend to be extremely emotional, sometimes directing their pain-derived frustration and hostility at funeral-home staff, police and even your friendly neighbourhood reporters.
At the centre, Hamilton-Davis was wrapping up an interview with the father of a young man who had been killed in a drive-by shooting the night before.
By then my meteorological prediction had come to pass. The rain was pouring, and the dark cloud hovered over the city – maybe in anticipation of what was to come.
The interview ended and Hamilton-Davis and I were offered a lift back to the office by Jensen La Vende, a colleague who worked at another media house at the time. As we made our way around the Queen’s Park Savannah, what happened next plays out in slow motion every so often on the nights I can’t sleep, or the times I experience writer’s block.
About three police cars, sirens blaring, sped into the driveway of the maternity ward of the Port of Spain General Hospital.
“Some police officer’s wife might be pregnant. But if something newsworthy is going on, can we stop to cover it?” I joked with my colleagues.
Three more police cars sped past, followed by another three. Then came the familiar sound of a machine gun, superseding the sound of the rainfall on the windscreen. La Vende looked at me and I looked at him. Hamilton-Davis looked at both of us.
“Shane, hand me the camera from the back there,” La Vende instructed, and I obliged.
Even before the car came to complete stop in the hospital’s driveway, I jumped out. A police officer in tactical wear ran past, holding what I later found out was an HK MP 5 rifle in one hand and his cell phone in the other.
“I can’t talk now, one of my officers just got shot!” he said to the person on the other end.
Hamilton-Davis, La Vende and I ran in the direction from which the crowd was scampering and saw the body of a man lying on the ground, half in, half out of the security booth at the main entrance. That man, Allan “Scanny” Martin, was one of the men believed to have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of businesswoman Vindra Naipaul-Coolman.
While trying to piece together information from security guards, nurses and even a pie vendor, I got my first lesson in the challenges of field reporting during a crisis. Getting an answer to my simple “What happened?” was an enormous challenge. I got everything, from a second coup to the second coming of Christ.
And then my mother called. “Shane, I heard something’s going on in Port of Spain, have you heard of anything?” she asked.
“Mom, I can’t talk now, there was a shooting just now and a guy is dead!”
“Okay. Have fun and be safe” she hung up.
She clearly seemed to have more confidence in my ability to write the story, or at the very least, not get killed that day.
I heard a banging behind me, and as I turned around, I saw about a dozen heavily-armed police officers in tactical gear. That was when I realised that whatever had happened was far from over.
As the police stormed the hospital, a security guard told me his version of the story. Three men – Martin, Hassan Atwell and Christopher “Monster” Selby, all inmates at the Port of Spain prison – had escaped. Armed with guns, they had shot their way out of their cells and onto Frederick Street, where a getaway vehicle, a Nissan Navara, was waiting.
In their haste, the getaway driver lost control of the SUV and crashed at the corner of Oxford and Charlotte Streets. The men escaped on foot and ran onto the grounds of the hospital, where Martin held a female security guard hostage and fatally shot PC Sherman Maynard. As he triedto escape, police fatally shot Martin. His hostage was unharmed.
I was confused. How did they get guns in prison? How did they arrange a getaway vehicle? Where did the two fugitives and the driver go?
Writing about this four years later, I am still confused.
After an exhaustive floor-by-floor search of the hospital, neither Atwell nor Selby was found. The already chaotic scene at the hospital descended into downright panic as police blocked every possible entrance and exit, and searched every vehicle leaving. The National Operations Centre helicopter hovered overhead, and police set up guard at the hospital’s gate, pushing the media outside.
The tension and chaos of that day were one of the determining factors in my decision to make a career of journalism. The thrill and sense of fulfilment I got on the ground sealed my decision – this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. To be able to say to the nation, “I was there, and I can tell you what happened,” is a feeling words cannot describe.
In the weeks that followed, one fugitive was found murdered and the other surrendered to police. But in some ways the shadow cast on that day lingers over the city and the country even today — the same cloud of uncertainty and vulnerability that haunts people every time they leave their homes. If three men who were supposed to be confined to one of TT’s most secure facilities could get hold of weapons and co-ordinate such a daring escape, killing one police officer in the process, how safe are we as we walk the streets?
Repeated assurances from security stakeholders, both past and present, hold little weight as the inquiry into the circumstances behind the prison break drags on with no apparent end in sight.
But on the less bleak side, one of the things that stood out for me was the resilience people showed in the days, weeks and even years after the event. Businesses remained open and hospital staff returned to work. Despite the cloud, life went on, with people hoping that something like this never happens again.