Ever since I’ve joined Mercy Ships I’ve discovered that every day is unique. Every few that pass prove to hold some form of significance that I would never have experienced outside of my time with this ministry. The places we go, the people we meet, the things we end up doing while working or in our free time. It’s not uncommon to utter the words “wow” or “I never thought I’d do that.”
Screening day was bound to be one of those days. We were asked not to take any photos so you’ll have to wait until the communications department releases some to see them, though you can google “Togo Screening Day Mercy Ships” and come up with links like this to get an idea of what screening days usually look like.
As far as Mercy Ships events go, Screening Day is one of the most anticipated ones. It’s a time of great hardship as we are forced to turn away people we can’t help, but also great joy as we give appointment cards out to those we can, and hope along with it.
Yesterday I was slotted to be a driver in the morning and then join the worship team. Basically I drove two carloads of people to the national stadium here in Freetown and then grabbed a drum and banged away while Marty, one of our chaplains, played his guitar. We were set up at the very end of the line with the prayer teams, a place where people could get prayer if they were turned away for surgery.
The following is an overview of my experience that followed. When we got back last night we sat down and individually wrote out our own experiences and statements, so I have that to work from, but I’ll try and fill in gaps with the knowledge I’ve been given since.
Needless to say, I didn’t end up playing in a worship band for long. I had gotten up at 4:30am and had driven my first carload to the stadium at 5:30, my second at 6:45am, so my timeline is warped at best. But sometime around 9am we were asked to come to the front gate where thousands of people were lined up waiting to get into the stadium to be screened for surgery.
When we got there it was clear to me that playing music was not going to do any good. The crowd was loud, and I mean shout to hear me 2 feet away from you loud. It didn’t take long for the crowd to press in on us again so much that we had no room to play and made our exit to the inside of the gate.
From there we moved to the roof of the gatehouse, where it was suggested that we keep playing. We forsook this soon enough as well and started praying for the crowd. There was probably about a thousand people immediately under us crowded in the left-hand side of the square from where I stood. The right hand side was cornered off and clear of all but some police.
We had effectively lost control when the line on the left forsook the queue and became a mob. Other things started happening from my vantage point that increased the chaos, however.
To the far right of the clearing a group of people came over the barrier, which led even more to follow suit and create their own line along the outside of the cleared space to the gate. Not long after seeing this the mob on the left broke out of their confinements as well and turned what had once been a rectangular empty section into what looked like a lopsided triangle.
I distinctly remember seeing and praying for a little girl who couldn’t have been older than 8 years old. Pink shirt and ties in her braided hair. She was clawing up her mother’s shoulders to stay out of the crowd, understandably terrified of what was going on around her. I prayed for her as they put her down in the now calm section of the crowd.
The basic layout at this point was the stadium on my left with the screening going on around it. Behind me (on the gatehouse) and outside of the wall around the stadium were the queues for patients to work their way into the stadium. In front of me, and outside the main gate were thousands of people hoping to get in and out of the sun.
Time passed as I tried to help relay information from the team on the ground inside of the stadium to those on the outside. We started lifting equipment up onto the roof from below, and soon I was trying to yell something at the guys on the inside of the gate. They yelled back up that the police were about to open the gate, to which I responded “what?! NO!”
I ran to the team on the inside of the stadium walls and yelled that they were going to open the gates. They responded as I had and I ran back to try and stop them from above. They couldn’t hear me, and as I screamed and hollered at the top of my lungs the first few people began stumbling and falling into the space behind the gate.
At the time I thought that the police had opened the gate like they had planned, but as the evidence comes in (including lots of photos and video) the gate simply burst under the pressure of the crowd.
I was left on top helpless as men ran in and two women passed out and collapsed under them. I started pointing to them and yelling for medical help, running back to the team inside and jumping down off the gatehouse to find nurses. I didn’t make it far, however, when I noticed the flood of men trying to climb the wall into the stadium.
I ran and started yelling at them, trying to take up as much space as possible and do anything short of shoving them back down to keep them from getting up. The last thing I wanted was a flood of people scaling the wall and scattering into the screening. Others were there and more joined in as we tried to keep them down.
That’s when I got a good look at the pile of people stuck in the gateway. They were crushing each other, fighting to get in and being sucked into a writhing pile of people. One man came out with his pants around his ankles, over a dozen didn’t come out.
I thought it was a miracle that more weren’t trying to pour through. It could have been far, far worse than it was.
My buddy Clay was down there trying to help people out, which was courageous but far to risky. Shannon and I started hollering at him to get out, scared he might get sucked in himself. We finally got his attention, he looked in utter shock, and managed to get his attention again to grab another Mercy Shipper out of the mess.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the desperation in either Shannon or Clay’s voices.
I ran to see if we could get more police, or at least police that could do something effective, but got sidetracked by a number of things. I ran back in time to see the police rally miraculously and close the gates. The ground was littered with bodies.
I ran down as Peter pulled one out, and turned to grab another that was unconscious on the ground. There was blood all over his face, it looked like every orifice had been bleeding. This is where Basic Safety Training paid off as I propped him up supporting his head with my arms and chest. I put my arms under his armpits and gripped my wrists around his chest, lifting him and pulling him up towards the nurses.
Someone helped grab his legs as we took him to shade and laid him down. Letting him down proved difficult and his head bumped the ground harder than I would have liked. As if in response he gurgled/spit blood up. Concerned that he might choke I rolled him on his side and left him with the nurses that came to tend to him. They handled it all so well.
It turns out that just a handful of security volunteers had managed to hold their line and keep the second wave of bursting through the gates. We would have been in much more trouble if they hadn’t been there.
I went down to help monitor the line as they allowed people through a handful at a time. I relieved our new hospital manager for a while so he could go get water, and it was during that time that they carried the little girl I had seen in the crowd earlier up and into the stadium unconscious.
We let people through, and worked through various strategies to regain control of the situation. I won’t go into the detail of all of that, but suffice it to say that none of our plans were looking good. We now had hundreds of people in the stadium waiting to be screened, as many or more than we could actually see, and a flood of people outside thirsty and desperate.
Somewhere in here I got lunch. I don’t know how that worked out exactly but I didn’t get to finish it as about half way through we were told that if we weren’t under Dr. Gary or with Security we were leaving. Things were beyond our ability to restore.
I took that as my time to join security. Shannon was kind enough to take my stuff with her as I followed Peter back to the front. We got there and I started running errands, literally. We didn’t have radios and the cell phones were proving difficult to hear in the din, so I volunteered to run between various people, find keys to cars, etc.
We decided to stay with a skeleton crew, we desperately wanted to screen as many as we could. But things started to unravel so I was sent to tell everyone to leave. We got nurses into trucks and sent them back to the ship. I spent a lot of my time shadowing Donovan or Tracy, our Managing Director and Off Ships Programs Director respectively, with Sam and either watching out for them or running errands.
A riot police officer, who Sam and I lovingly nicknamed the “Small Scary Guy” came up in his helmet and asked what was up. He said we needed to either tell the people to go home or that we could see them, and if we could see them he would get them in line. We believed him.
We called for a team to come back as he went and made good on his promise, the people calming down at the news that if they didn’t we would leave. Eventually there was a small screening crew set up at the gate where we would make our exit. They did some basic visual screening to see if we could help people and told them to come back later for the full screening. Back at the main gate were only four of us, Donovan, Tracy, Sam and me.
Things were taking too long. The line started to dissolve in places. It wound around the stadium on the second level and down the stairs that led to us, where the line snaked out and back to the wall of the stadium. Eventually a crowd started to form on the near side of the line, and more and more people started approaching to ask us for help.
We tried to get them to go back to the line, telling them that if they didn’t we wouldn’t be able to help them. Some listened, in fact some understood once we explained it so well that they turned into helpers. But the more people came to talk to us the more others followed suit. And the less they were inclined to leave.
People started showing me their tumors, burns, and whatever other reasons had brought them to us in the first place. We told them to get back in line and at some point in here the people on the stairs literally broke the gate that was keeping them up and practically pulled it off the hinges.
They calmed back down though, and things seemed contained again.
Eventually Tracy pulled us aside. She was going to screen them herself and we would send them to the recently formed screening team at the gate. The line still seemed orderly enough, we thought it was worth a try. Anything to get at least some people screened.
We walked over to the front of the line at the stadium wall and Tracy started seeing people one at a time. This didn’t last long.
The crowd that had formed to the near side of the winding line saw that we were starting screening and immediately forced their way into the closes bit of line available. This sent up a riotous roar from the crowd as people fought to protect their place in line. Soon the three-person wide line grew and expanded as people skipped Tracy and came to the rest of us to show us their illnesses.
Finally even I was looking at tumors and cleft lips and telling people that we could help them or not. We managed to send one group off to get screened before Tracy pulled the plug and we walked away. It was getting to chaotic, and the risk of more harm being done to people was escalating. I honestly wish we’d had more time, there were so so many people we could have helped.
We got around the stadium to the gate where the screening was going on and helped out there to the best of our ability. Thankfully a few trucks had returned so we wouldn’t have to hoof it out.
Someone looked at their watch, it was 2PM. It felt like it was at least 6 and no one believed him until someone else looked at their own watch to confirm.
We were about to close down and take off when another group rounded the corner. The police had found 27 people that they figured we could help, and for the most part they were right. We waited for them and let them be screened. Just as they were finishing what looked like the remainder of the crowd came around the bend, which we took as our cue to leave.
We piled into the back of the land rovers turned pickup trucks and got out.
I hadn’t felt in danger at all until it was just the four of us left, and then the sense of hostility and risk grew steadily. It was a large part of the reason I tailed our leaders so much as they stayed close to the main gate. Even as we drove out of the stadium it felt like we had wandered into a war zone. Not for any overt reason I suppose, but after the whole day it was a common feeling in my truck as we drove out. We just wanted to get home.
There’s a lot to think through and process. Someone died yesterday, and though it looks like it was in large part due to pre-existing conditions it still adds a sense of gravity to the day. Everyone else who ended up in the hospital, about 12 in total, are doing much better and most have been released. Mercy Ships made sure they were taken care of and covered any expenses.
We got blindsided, there was no way we could see this coming. Mercy Ships has been in Sierra Leone 5 times and never had any issues like this. Even our screenings up country earlier this year went smoothly and with little issue. We were caught completely off guard as were all of our partners.
In examining everything we’re told that there were a series of events that cascaded to propel the situation beyond our control. Four or five events we could have handled, but over a dozen was too much. They included things like having people inciting the crowd (two arrests have been made so far), the police force being made up mostly of cadets, having multiple branches of the police force there (nearly breaking out in their own fight at one point), and lots of areas of broken communication.
There were a lot of things that happened that were outside of our control, but we’re learning. There are a lot of things to improve upon, and we hope and pray that something like this will never happen again. On the whole I’m proud of how everyone handled themselves and responded to the crisis. Personally I was glad to be there, not glad it was happening but glad I was available to help and not off in some remote corner of the stadium. Things could have gone much worse than they did.
As a crew we stand united, heart broken, and left wondering what God will bring out of this. There’s a sense that He’s going to do something great out of the midst of this.
Join us in prayer for just that if you’re of the praying variety.
I’ll try to post more later, feel free to ask questions that you would like addressed.