Within a few devastating moments two years ago, Baronette “Barri” Thomas lost her husband Philip and her three children – all she had in the world.
The fury of Hurricane Dorian separated the family into the storm’s flood waters and battering waves that catastrophically damaged their settlement of McLean’s Town, east Grand Bahama.
Pinned at one point between two lamp poles, Thomas called upon what her husband taught her about how to survive, and with those navigation skills she floated for three days through miles of mangroves and inundated pine forests, fighting near death until she chanced upon the home of a Rocky Creek resident who took her in from the elements.
In October 2019, police search teams found the remains of a child in the Rocky Creek settlement fitting the description of one of Thomas’ children, and the remains of other suspected storm victims were also found in the storm’s aftermath.
Family members of those missing and presumed dead submitted blood samples for DNA analysis at the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF)’s Grand Bahama headquarters nearly two years ago, but for Thomas and other bereaved Dorian survivors, there has been no answer on the results of DNA testing and hence, no closure.
In an emotional and inspiring interview with Perspective on the two-year anniversary of Dorian’s landfall, Thomas updated us on her ongoing quest to obtain her family’s remains, revealing, “Nothing has changed. I am still getting the runaround, a government official has yet to contact me. I haven’t gotten any help and no response – everything remains the same.
“No one has given me DNA [results] yet. I have called. I am still leaving emails. I’m still doing all of the necessary things for me to try to acquire what I need, and nothing is being answered.
“Why is there a delay? It is going on two years. We live in a very advanced time, so there is no way that I should have been waiting two years for DNA to confirm the remains in the Rand [Memorial Hospital]. Even if I had to pay for them privately, I would have done that to allow them to take it to whichever forensic facility they needed.”
Thomas said the last time she contacted the authorities for an update was the day before our interview.
In addition to contacting the police, the widow and bereaved mother said she has also emailed and phoned the office of Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, and has emailed Free National Movement East Grand Bahama candidate Kwasi Thompson, in an effort to get help on getting answers.
She noted, “I called the prime minister on numerous occasions and got not one answer [from him], and I was told by his secretary that ‘he wishes not to meet with you at this time’.”
Last year, then head of Grand Bahama’s Central Detective Unit Chief Superintendent Brian Rolle told us that the DNA samples of next of kin were sent to a lab in the United States for analysis, but that there had been a protracted wait on the results.
We contacted Police Commissioner Paul Rolle last week to inquire on the status of DNA analysis on the remains of Dorian’s victims on Grand Bahama.
Rolle said, “I don’t have the answers that you seek as those matters will go to the lab. It may be better for you to speak to the director of forensics who can provide you with the specifics. I recall they got some results back, but cannot say whose they were.”
We contacted Director of Forensics Rochelle Deleveaux last Thursday for information regarding our inquiry, who told us she would speak with Commissioner Rolle, and return a call to us.
That call was not returned up to press time.
Our inability to receive an update or information gave insight into what Thomas and other Grand Bahama families longing for closure have had to endure.
TAKING IT ‘SECOND BY SECOND’
After watching the widely viewed documentary on her tragedy “Barri and the six”, we marveled at how Thomas had the presence of mind to hold onto life in unimaginable elements, and to continue to hold on now that those she lived for are gone.
With incredible resolve, she told us, “I’m not going to give you the answer of day by day, but I am going to give you the answer of second by second, and that is for me to breathe in and exhale out.
“It’s very difficult. Keep in mind that I was a mother of three beautiful children and I enjoyed being a mother. I enjoyed being a wife of a king. My family was my life; I lived for my children. So knowing that I don’t have my children to live for, it can play with your psyche.
“Knowing that my husband is not even here to comfort me or for us to comfort each other, I’m not going to pretend or put on a face like I have it all together. I don’t have it all together, but I take it second by second knowing that I am hopefully a step further from where I was before everything took place. I am a second ahead of where I was before.”
Thomas said she tries not to let reality hit her at times, but surmises that her coping mechanisms are helping to see her through.
On what keeps her motivated each day, she stressed, “I am fighting for the legacy of my family which they deserve. They deserve a proper burial. They have people that love them. What keeps me together is fighting for my kids and Phil.”
‘I NEED RESULTS’
September 1 will be forever etched in the memory of Grand Bahamians and Abaconians, as the date is marked as the passage of the worst natural disaster to hit The Bahamas in living memory.
For Thomas, September 1, 2019 is but one day whose memorial she must grapple with.
She pointed out, “Keep in mind now, I lost four family members and there are 12 months in a year, and with those 12 months, six of them I have to remember their birthdays, including mine.
“After September, I am going to have to deal with November 25, which is my [wedding] anniversary, then Christmas is coming up; it’s hard and having to be on the island is even worse.
“If I am in an atmosphere and there is a certain scent or the wind blows, it puts me back into a whole a lot of memories. September is just one month where it weighs heavily because the attention of the nation is on it, but my attention is on my tragic situation every single day of my life.”
Following upon the tragic loss of her husband and children, her father-in-law, Philip Thomas Sr., passed away in March of COVID-19.
Gripped by emotion as we discussed her father-in-law’s death, Thomas said, “My father-in-law was actually grieving within. In the hospital, they had said that the only thing he was talking about was …”
Thomas paused mid-sentence, and in that moment she began to cry.
After a while she continued, telling us, “The only thing he was talking about was his grandchildren and that’s all he wanted to talk about.”
As if seeking to comfort herself in the loss, she reasoned, “I think he is happy now, you know?”
Careful to be respectful of her grief and the memory of her children, we shared with Thomas that we cannot imagine having to go through what she has endured.
With her own sense of wonderment and homage to her faith in God, she responded, “It’s something that surpasses all understanding. Keep in mind that I was in it, and I can’t even imagine the hell I’ve been through and I’m still here, and I’m still able to put out what is necessary of me as a productive citizen.
“I have to keep holding on. It is a must. I believe that the Father knew what was going to happen to me, so I was equipped from my mother’s womb. If I allow what my eyes can see to judge the strength and the power and the grace that I have within, I wouldn’t be productive in my full capacity as a human being. You don’t want to get stuck in grief.
“So, I have to not allow my eyes or my thoughts to dictate how I feel or what I do, because there is something bigger than my feelings. There is my family that deserves rest.”
In her recommendations arising from this year’s inquest into the storm deaths of 22 Abaco residents, Coroner Jeanine Weech-Gomez said “… [O]ur goal must be to show respect for the dead as well as compassion for the living.”
In the context of Grand Bahama survivors like Thomas who are still searching for closure, the compassionate and humane thing for authorities to do would be to speak with each outstanding DNA sample donor, and advise them regarding the status of analysis on remains found in Dorian’s aftermath.
Of her painstaking quest for answers, Thomas asked passionately, “What else do you want from me? Does it need to happen to you? I’ve said before, what if I just go and open the morgue doors and start grabbing out bodies? Do I need to stir up that kind of conflict?
“I need results, I am asking for something that is mine.”