Reminding Haitians that they are one, political and religious leaders Saturday bid farewell to 17 of their sons and daughters killed earlier in the week in a Carnival float tragedy that also left scores injured.
“These young men and women, who were singing and dancing, they left us early,” Roman Catholic Monsignor Pierre Andre Dumas said during the State-sponsored funeral. “Our nation is in mourning…but Haiti is here, we are all still here.”
Dumas and leaders of the Anglican and Protestants faiths called on Haitians to unite as they emphasized the theme the government chose for the solemn occasion: “In good times, like in bad times, we are all Haiti.”
The funeral service took place on the Champ de Mars, the network of public squares where Haitian hip hop singer Daniel “Fantom” Darinus ran into a power line at 2:48 a.m. Tuesday while performing atop a float. The accident immediately knocked Darinus unconscious and triggered a chaotic stampede. Seventeen people were killed and 76 were injured, including Darinus, government spokesman Rotchild Francois Jr. said.
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Francois revised the death toll on Friday from 18 after he said the morgue counted one victim twice. In an interview with the Miami Herald a day after the accident, Darinus said he was distracted and had forgotten about the third power line when he turned his head and hit it.
Thousands attended Saturday’s service, crowding inside a cordoned off area. Others blanketed the Champ de Mars where they were able to view the service on an oversized TV screen that hung from the top floor of the ornate presidential viewing stand where the service was being held. On one side of the stand sat President Michel Martelly and his wife Sophia; Prime Minister Evans Paul, members of the government and the foreign diplomatic corps. On another side sat relatives of those who died. Nearly everyone was in white at the request of Haiti's government.
One step below, on elevated platforms, were the 17 coffins, each covered with a blue and red Haitian flag. A photo of each victim was placed near the casket, as was each name, etched on hanging black and white banners. A crucifix made of carnations also decorated the caskets.
Dozens of police officers kept watch over mourners, as did some 300 Civil Protection officers who later rushed the stage to help carry off grief-stricken mothers. Unable to console themselves, some of the mothers were physically carried away, held up by three and four protection officers, their painful wails traveling throughout the area.
“We are all in pain today,” Paul said, calling the accident “a national tragedy.”
“Today is not a political event,” he added, noting that it was instead about recognizing a set of circumstances “that have hit our country; that showed us we all have the capacity to stand together. We all have the capacity to make sacrifices.”
Paul spoke for 17 minutes, during which he defended the government’s response to the tragedy. Opposition politicians and critics have accused the government of negligence, lying about the death toll and rushing to bury the dead without autopsies.
Autopsies, Paul said, were all done.
Paul also spoke about his own personal tragedy, recalling how he lost his youngest sister in 1976 during a soccer game at the National Stadium when a stampede occurred.
“I didn’t find a government to stand with me,” he said. “I didn’t have a president or first lady to come give their condolences.”
Today, he said, “the people in the government have taken their responsibility.”
Paul was the only government official to speak. Leaving before the coffins were removed, Martelly walked into a waiting crowd, his motorcade following closely behind.
Each of the dead will be buried in individual plots in different parts of the country. The government has provided assistance.
Romanie Donnassaint, 46, whose 17-year-old cousin, Alice Bureau, died in the accident, said she appreciates the government’s efforts.
“Today is sad,” she said. “I feel so bad because she was so young.”
Donnassaint said Bureau was attending the Carnival with her mother but later went off with friends to follow the floats.
“Her mom can’t even talk,” she said.
Like many Haitians who were moved by the tragedy, Mucanor Joseph, 28, said he was still in disbelief.
“I don’t think anyone thought something bad like this could have happened,” Joseph said. “We have to accept what has happened, but it can also serve as a lesson, too.”
Fenix Eugene, who also lost a cousin, 28-year-old Louis Rene, in the tragedy, said it is still hard to grasp.
“It’s a huge hit that we have taken,” he said. “Maybe if he was sick, we could understand his death. But he was dancing, enjoying Carnival.”
Eugene said the family learned about Rene’s death after a stranger hearing his cell phone ring nonstop, finally grabbed it out of his pocket as his body laid on the ground, and said to the person on the other line: “This person who you are calling, he’s dead.”