Sunday, April 08, 2012

Death Postponed: Captain Burrell's horrifying helicopter escape. 'I felt that it was the last day of my life,' says Jamaica Football Federation president

BURRELL… I have been through a lot, but that was the closest I had come to dying 

Sunday, April 08, 20

This is the eighth in a series of feature stories recounting close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of society.

As a businessman and sports administrator Captain Horace Burrell has logged many hours flying across the globe. However, there is one flight that the retired army officer will never forget, because it almost ended his life.

It happened here in Jamaica during the 1980s when Burrell was a member of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF).

"I was a commander in the First Battalion, Jamaica Regiment and we were conducting a company exercise across the island and this involved flying by helicopter," Burrell, the charismatic president of the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF), told the Jamaica Observer.

"This particular sector was one in which we moved from Old Harbour in St Catherine, through Chapelton and Summerfield in Clarendon and while our two aircraft were flying low over Chapelton, the one that I was in unfortunately hit a power line, which had four massive power cables," he recalled.

"When we hit the big, high tension wire, luckily the aircraft was travelling with a wire cutter, because we were going fast, about 150 knots. It was the power cables which supply electricity to most of the parish of Clarendon.

"Three strands of the high tension wire were cut down, but luckily we missed the ground strap by passing about a foot over it. Had we hit the ground strap, that would have caused a major explosion. Only a foot lower and the aircraft would have blown up in mid-air," he revealed.

It was, he admitted, his "worst life-threatening experience".

Today, though, Burrell can laugh about the ordeal as he recalled how one Sergeant Gentles, who was in the aircraft, became hysterical after the helicopter made an emergency landing.

According to Burrell, Gentles ran off saying "oh my God, I am a duppy, I am a ghost, I am dead".

"The other troops had to run after him and told him to get a hold of himself," Burrell said.

"The skipper at that time was Lt Col Oscar Derby, who is now the head of the Civil Aviation Authority, and when we got out of the aircraft we were just hitting fists, because that was the closest shave for us," said Burrell.

"Seconds before, I felt that I was a goner. It was so severe, when those massive cables busted Frankfield was out of light, and other areas like May Pen, Kellits, Chapelton and other parts of the island were out of power, because the lines had been cut up.

"I felt that this was the last day of my life. It happened in a matter of a split second. We came upon the wire quickly, but fortunately the wire cutter saved us. I would have been history. I have been through a lot, but that was the closest I had come to dying," Burrell said.

Before that, though, the May Pen, Clarendon-born Burrell had, as a soldier, many dangerous encounters with gun-toting killers, who operated with impunity.

He recalled that during the middle and latter parts of the 1970s and early 1980s, sections of the Corporate Area were regarded as killing fields.

During one operation in the South St Andrew section of Wilton Gardens (Rema), Burrell again came close to meeting his maker.

"I remember in the early years of my return from training overseas (Sandhurst Academy in England), this one afternoon we were sent down to Rema to quell a battle, because there was a lot of shooting in the area," Burrell told the Sunday Observer.

"We came out of our vehicle and were moving tactically in no-man's land. While doing that we came under intense fire and we had to jump into a canal to save our lives.

"The shots were just ricocheting over us. In a matter of seconds it was like being on a battlefield. It was another close shave. That was near to the 1980 election and in those days the gunmen were far more brazen. There was sustained fire. The gunmen used to be very fierce. They used to be on top of the high-rise buildings where they would deploy themselves tactically. They would have a lookout and they would alert the others," he said.

Captain Burrell's colourful history could not be written without reference to the role that he played in efforts to restore order to the Caribbean island of Grenada, following a coup d'etat in 1983.

He was among a group of JDF soldiers that formed the Caribbean team that headed to the spice isle when then Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was toppled and murdered and other members of Bishop's New Jewel Movement assumed authority. The move prompted the United States and other governments in the region to invade the Windward Island state with a view to returning democracy there.

In the end, the USA-led troops prevailed and members of the New Jewel Movement were held and imprisoned.

"In Grenada there was sporadic gunfire. It was also a very frightening experience," Burrell said. "We went shortly after the invasion and the difficulty we faced was that the PRA (People's Revolutionary Army) exercised guerrilla-type warfare, and whenever the troops were approaching they would switch to civilian clothes and that was very dangerous, because you were taught not to shoot on sight, that you had to be very careful, because it was not an area that you had only military, there were a lot of civilians as well."

The PRA was the military arm of the New Jewel Movement, but its efforts at keeping the invading forces at bay were short-lived.

"The PRA soldiers were not professional soldiers," said Burrell, who served the Caribbean forces as operations officer. "They were like guerrillas who had guns concealed and at intervals they would fire. When it suited them they would have uniforms, and at other times they would have civilian clothing. On one or two occasions we came under fire, but thanks be to God, we were able to repel the fire, because they were not as well-trained as regular soldiers."

One of the major challenges of Burrell's army career, though, confronted him during his early years, while he was a second lieutenant.

He had apprehended a small plane which had apparently landed in South East St Elizabeth to pick up marijuana, and held its two passengers, along with an estimated US$550,000.

Despite a move to bribe him in order to secure their release, Burrell insisted that what they were doing was illegal and proceeded to take them into custody.

"I was a young officer and in those days I had family members in St Elizabeth. One Sunday they left before me and as soon as I finished training I decided to head down," he related.

"There was an airstrip at Nain that was active, because at that time the Alpart bauxite plant used that airstrip to land their planes. I was always a very keen young officer and if I saw anything that looked suspicious, I would investigate. Just as I was about to pass, I saw an aircraft land," he said.

"Being in the JDF in those times, we used to do a lot of ganja eradication work with helicopters across the country, so we were fully aware of some of those illegal activities that take place across the country. I was alone, driving past and saw the plane land. I also saw two cars and a pickup. The moment I turned in I saw the vehicles speeding away and the plane was left on the ground," Burrell explained.

"The pilot had already cut the engine, so I pulled my pistol and rushed up to the plane. The moment the vehicles sped away, it occurred to me that something was wrong and that it was an illegal landing. I rushed up, keeping away from the propeller all the time. The pilot attempted to restart the engine, but I pointed my gun at the cockpit and signalled to him to cut the engine as I was about to fire," said Burrell.

"After that I ordered him to come out of the aircraft. While he was coming out, I asked him 'what are you doing here?' He said he had a problem with his engine and he decided to land. I said 'no', and asked him why the people who drove away were there and he said he didn't know. So immediately I told him and the other man, under the gun, to get out of the aircraft and to follow me out into the road, which was several metres away. They both obeyed. We went out to the road, I saw a motorist and told him to go to the police station and advise the police that I had apprehended a crew which had made an illegal landing." Burrell recalled.

"The men wanted to offer me money. They said whatever I wanted I could get. I told them how dare them, and that what they were doing was illegal.

"In no time the JDF was signalled and sent a helicopter down with troops and the men were locked up in the Nain station. The JDF took control of it and the legal procedures followed after that," Burrell said.

Describing his army experience as invaluable, Burrell said that despite the many dangers he would not give up the JDF for anything.

"If I had my life to live over I would join the army again and again," he said. "My experience in the Jamaica Defence Force has been the greatest thing that has happened to me. It is the most satisfying and fulfilling experience that I have had; one that assisted me in building character and really moulded me into the kind of person that I am.

"This is why, even emotionally sometimes I say to people that I find it hard to cry. I would love to cry at times, but I find it difficult, because as a trained military officer, as they say, death before dishonour. You cannot display emotion. I do not believe, no matter what the situation, in openly displaying emotion. That is not a part of my training. It is something that is inculcated deep inside of me and to show emotions openly is certainly not in my book," he confessed.

"I would love to at times even shed a tear, but could not do that because of the kind of training and discipline instilled in me during the various levels of training, but mostly in Canada and England," Burrell said.


No comments:

Post a Comment