By Shemuel Fanfair
On the night of the deadly prison riot which claimed the lives of 17 inmates, firemen were the recipients of insults and “missiles” while they attempted to battle the blaze. These were the words of Officer in Charge of Operations at the Guyana Fire Service (GFS), Compton Sparman who described the March 3 events as “traumatic”.
In relating his account of events to the Commission of Inquiry into the Camp Street prison fire, Sparman explained that his team was observing all standard operating procedures to contain the blaze even as bricks were hurled at many of his firemen.
He also posited that for the first time he felt scared in his near 34 years on the job as a fireman.
“They were throwing bricks at us and threatening us…being a resident of Albouystown they were saying I know you…and when I get out I will deal with you,” he stressed.
“[We] felt threatened, but were given assurances by the prison authorities that they would ensure that security will be maintained,” he further noted.
“If the cells were breached we would have been the targets simply because we were the ones extinguishing the fires,” Sparman told the COI in relation to questions of threats to personal security.
The Fire Officer also rejected previous claims that water supply went out for a short time. Sparman revealed that at one point prisoners were using mattresses to bar water from entering the facility.
When questioned further over the Fire Service’s operations on the night of the deadly events, the Fire Officer emphasised that fire service men could not barge in to rescue inmates as the prison service gave orders on the movement of prisoners.
Sparman related to the Commission that Deputy Director of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels had said that the prisoners “didn’t want to come out” as they started the fires.
When questioned further by attorney representing the Joint Services, Eusi Anderson, the officer admitted that he didn’t actually see the prisoners who were “screaming” but he had repeatedly heard, “a banging on the door”.
In somewhat of a contrast to some of the accounts posited by inmates who have already testified, the officer however suggested that it would have been difficult for prison officers to free the inmates as heat causes metal to expand.
Commissioners also heard that many of the responding officers who witnessed the dead bodies have been undergoing counseling to overcome the problems associated with their recent interrupted sleeping patterns. At this point, Sparman recalled what he saw in a much lowered tone. He explained that the scenes of the riot were filled with “confusion and chaos” and noted the discoloured skin of many of the dead inmates.
The fire officer surmised the cause of the fires and their associated causalities: “The fires were no doubt maliciously set, all three days because of the grievances [of the inmates],” he noted.