BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large South/Central Bureau email@example.com
MANDEVILLE, Manchester — The lives of teenagers Shakeria Muschette, Okeen Gordon, Kimona Levy and Tameka Peart were honoured in song and speech during a memorial service lasting three-and-a-half hours Wednesday.
Most crucial of all were pledges from school and community leaders that the four Holmwood Technical High School students, who perished in a catastrophic bus crash allegedly triggered by improper overtaking on September 25, will not have died in vain.
The hundreds packed into the Holmwood auditorium in Christiana, including parents and families of the crash victims, heard of plans to not only sustain an orderly transport system for Holmwood but for other schools in the wider Manchester.
"We cannot and must not allow these children's lives to go in vain without us learning important lessons and taking significant action as a result," said member of parliament for North East Manchester Audley Shaw, who is himself a Holmwood past student.
"What we have to do is seek to have a comprehensive plan that takes into account all of our children, and that is what we are doing," said the former finance minister, who is challenging Andrew Holness for leadership of the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party.
Shaw reminded the audience that 11 coaster buses dedicated to transporting Holmwood students had so far been contracted by the school, with more to come under a programme launched on Monday.
This service was being complemented by two larger buses operated by the school.
Shaw said State-owned Jamaica Urban Transit Company buses, which had operated in the days following the crash, would continue "for this week" for the benefit of other children going to and from Christiana and Mandeville -- most notably for students of Christiana High School.
He said $300,000 drawn from his Constituency Development Fund would go towards that project.
A meeting was scheduled for yesterday with principals of a number of high schools in Mandeville and northern Manchester "because kids from up this way are going to those schools in Mandeville", Shaw said.
While Holmwood Technical has suffered most from fatalities and serious injuries as a result of such road mishaps, students from several schools have been victims in crashes on the steep winding roads of northern Manchester and south Trelawny in recent years. In 2011, four Holmwood students died in one such bus crash.
In the latest tragedy, one of two bus drivers involved is before the courts on manslaughter charges.
Shaw appealed for co-operation from all concerned, including students, parents, school and community, to ensure that the new dedicated system does not break down. He insisted that there should be no return to the "disorder" and absence of accountability which previously prevailed.
He condemned bus operators who, he said, had allegedly "threatened" and "cursed" schoolchildren over the changes in the bus system. Shaw said those who wanted to "curse" schoolchildren should instead focus on people, including himself and school administrators, who were insistent that the "welfare of our children" must come first. "Curse us, don't curse the schoolchildren," he said.
Principal of Holmwood Technical, Paul Bailey, also assured the audience that the "putting in place of a programme to send children to and from school in safety and dignity would continue".
Mark Smith of the Ministry of Education was among the many voices insisting that "something good must come of this" and that "we must all hold fast to the opportunity to make a change..."
Bailey noted that "Kimona, Tameka, Okeen came to us in September of this year, barely a month... and they came with good grades from the Grade Nine Achievement Test..."
He hailed Muschette for her role as captain of the under-19 netball team, a member of the national under-16 netball team and for her attention to academic work.
"Last year, she was the top student in her class..." he said. Marva Bernard of the Jamaica Netball Association was among those delivering the many tributres.
The rhetorical question: Why? Why so young? repeatedly came during the lengthy service. The ever-assuring answer was that the Lord knows best.
Pastor Kareem Bailey told the audience that in "moments like these, God is not staying away... he wants you to know that he has never left nor forsaken you".