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The barge engineer's 'last trip'

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, May 26, 2014

A few hundred lives have been lost in Fiji

waters because of shipping disasters.

On the night of May 11, 1884, the Syria, which was bringing indentured labourers from India, ran aground on Nasilai Reef off Nausori.

The 1010-tonne ship is said to have broken into two after hitting the reef, throwing

about 200 survivors in rough seas

and claiming 59 lives.

But the capsizing of the Kadavulevu in the Koro Sea on March 29, 1964 is reported to be the worst so far as 89 people died.

In 1973, the Makogai and the inter-island vessel Uluilakeba got caught in the centre of Cyclone Lottie and capsized near Lau on the same day, jointly claiming about 80 lives.

About a decade after the devastation by

Cyclone Lottie, the barge Talofa capsized in waters off Yasawa-i-Rara in 1986,

claiming eight lives.

As part of a flashback into some disasters that have happened in the country,

The Fiji Times takes a look today into

the Talofa incident.

We bring you excerpts from what we

printed in 1986 and also talk to the daughter of an engineer on the barge whose body was never found, like that of others on board.

HE had told his family that it would be his last trip on board the barge.

But little did he and his family members know that it really would be his last trip and he would never return home.

On April 18, 1986, this newspaper reported about the capsized barge in Yasawa-i-Rara and the eight missing people who were on board.

Jack Chambers was an engineer at Fiji Electricity Authority's powerhouse in Lautoka when he retired.

After retiring, he got a job as an engineer on board the privately owned barge Talofa.

He worked on the barge for about two years and according to his family members, he was not keen on continuing work because of various reasons.

Some of his family members always went to the Lautoka wharf to see him off when the barge went out on its usual runs.

As usual, families went to the wharf to see him off when the barge was about to leave Lautoka for Vanua Levu on April 15, 1986.

The barge was reportedly carrying 68 concrete lampposts, 10 tonnes of roofing iron and 10 tonnes of dhal, bound for Labasa.

Mr Chambers, of Waiyavi in Lautoka, reportedly bade his family members farewell and told them that it would be his last trip on the barge.

His daughter Joan Anne Chand nee Chambers of Topline in Lautoka was about 34 years old when he left on the trip to Labasa.

Going down memory lane, she told this newspaper last Friday what the family went through when they heard the bad news.

"My daughter Shane always spent time in Waiyavi and she and others often saw my dad off when he was going on his trips," she said.

"I know that my dad was working on the Talofa for about two years as an engineer after retiring from FEA.

"He was often reluctant to go on the barge for various reasons and he had told us that the April 15, 1986, trip would be his last."

Mrs Chand said the weather was not good around that time as Cyclone Martin was affecting the country with heavy rain and strong winds.

"It was in the afternoon, maybe a day or two later, when we heard that the Talofa was found capsized.

"Apart from an iTaukei language radio station we couldn't tune in to any other radio station because of the bad weather.

"There was an announcement on the iTaukei radio station about the barge and we immediately went to Waiyavi to be with my mum."

Mrs Chand said this newspaper reported about the capsized boat in its edition of April 18, 1986, and eight missing people, including her father.

She said some things were found adrift when the search was being carried out for the missing seven crew members and a passenger.

"My father always took a rice bag with his things in it. He didn't take any other kind of bag with him on the trips.

"I know that the rice bag and some parts of a life jacket were found floating in the search area."

Mrs Chand said she, her mother, her siblings and extended family members stayed close together when the search was being carried out for the missing people.

"Although I didn't live in Waiyavi after getting married, we went there every weekend to visit my parents.

"We just didn't know what to do when the search was on and we stayed together, hoping for the best. During the search, we just prayed for my father and the other missing people, for them to be found alive somewhere."

Mrs Chand said the family called a priest and held a mass for her father and the other missing people when the search was called off after a few days.

She said things were quite hard for the Chambers family because her father's body was not found, thus them losing the opportunity of holding a proper funeral for him.

"Dad had told us that the trip to Labasa on that day would be his last one and he will leave the job.

"But little did we or even he know that it really will be his last trip and he will never come back home.

"Things were just not easy for us when my father was missing and it was worse when no body was found of the missing people."

Mrs Chand said a few days after the search had been called off, someone reported seeing smoke on Yalewa Kalou, an island that was rumoured to have been haunted.

She said there were hopes that the missing eight people could be on the island.

But, she said it was later discovered that some people were having a picnic on the island, thus the smoke.

"We still don't know what happened to the Talofa and the eight people who were on board, including my father," said Mrs Chand.

Her mother Jane Chambers died a few years ago, still not knowing what happened to her husband.

This newspaper carried an extensive report on the Talofa tragedy, including the massive search that was carried out even by American planes.

Although it may have been a small incident for many compared with other shipping disasters, what happened to the eight people on board remains a mystery.

The fact that none of the missing people's bodies were found definitely added more pain in the lives of their family members.

* NEXT WEEK: The SS Lakemba incident

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