Twenty-four years have passed since the July 27, 1990 attempted coup.
But for former clerical clerks Althea Passee-Bugros, Lauren Lopez and Grace Payne, the memories etched in their minds from that fateful day cannot be erased.
The women were part of the night staff at the Red House in Port of Spain when members of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen stormed the building announcing that the government had been overthrown.
Speaking with the Sunday Express on Friday, the women said they were unable to testify at the concluded Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 coup because their efforts to get information about the enquiry were not forthcoming. Their memories of the attempted coup included being locked in a vault, avoiding bullets which rained through the windows of the Red House and jumping through windows to avoid gunmen.
Two employees Lorraine Caballero and security guard Malcom Basanta were casualties on that day.
The women were among a group of 30 employees working the night shift. During that period the Red House catered to people wanting birth, marriage and death certificates.
Passee-Bugros said she worked at the Red House for nine years prior to the attempted coup.
She had been hired to do copying of records which were “tattered and old”.
“We used microscopes sometimes to get the information and place them in the proper order.
On that fateful day, I was three months pregnant, not much people knew and I wasn’t really feeling like coming to work that day. But my sister, she was also pregnant as well, and had an appointment in the hospital and she said ‘come girl, come to work I will buy you lunch’. So I said OK and went down to work.”
Explaining that the night shift employees commenced duties at 3 p.m. and ended at 11 p.m., Passee-Bugros said even though it was late, she commenced duty at 5.30 p.m. and didn’t have a chance to sit, or settle in before she heard a “loud explosion or gunshot or whatever it was, across by the police station.
But we knew that sometime before, a police officer had shot his wife and himself so we thought was something like that going on.”
Passee-Bugros said not knowing what was really going on, a number of employees ran to the window and looked out.
“Then we saw bullets start to fly off the window and one of the co-workers push in the window and we started to run. Another co-worker told us to run, it was an earthquake or something like that and everyone started to scamper.”
She said she ran down to the Binding Section and straight to a window which was facing the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
“A few people ran there and jumped. Some who were already at the bottom of the window encouraged the others to do same. My friend Dorris, she was in front of me, and when she looked down, realised the height. As she was getting ready to jump, some people ran past, shooting at the building. We separated then.”
Passee-Bugros said she ran into the Birth Section to hide and found three other women there as well.
She started crying and was told to start praying.
After some time had passed, she got up and was asked by the other women where she was going.
“I told them I prefer to get a bullet, rather than stay here and die,” she said, explaining that she was unaware that the police building was burning.
She said smoke seeping into the building gave her the impression the Red House was on fire.
She made her way back to a window, and then Passee-Bugros said she spotted a man who looked about 19, armed with a big gun.
“Our eyes make four and I shouted I want to come out, he said OK. So I hiked up my skirt and jumped and I just ran until I found a good Samaritan Coast Guard who took me home”.
I thought I was going to lose my baby. For months after, I was scared to come back to town. I didn’t know what to do, I was just there waiting for my baby to come. I didn’t know I was that strong,” she said.
Both women said with the 24th anniversary of the attempted coup today they wanted the night staff of the Red House to be recognised.
“Nobody to this date knew there was a night staff. A lot of employees broke their legs and were traumatised for years, and still cannot get over what happened,” Lopez said.
Recalling that recently a child “burst an Orchard pack” of juice in a store, and the sound terrified her, Lopez said the clerks had to call her husband to collect her.
Payne said during the unrest she along with others were hidden in a vault, while windows were being shot at.
“We were smelling smoke and we were scared. The vault was locked and we couldn’t get out,” she said.
Eventually they were able to make their way to safety.
They were the lucky ones.
Twenty-four people died in the 1990 coup attempt.
The 30 employees on duty during the night shift at the Red House on July 27, 1990:
Burt Le Gendre
Malcom Basanta (deceased)
Lorraine Caballero (deceased)