Thu. Oct 24th, 2019

An Island In Mourning

It was meant to be a night of free-spirited celebration. It ended in a devastating car crash that left two young men dead, one woman with life-changing injuries, and a tight-night island community shattered by pain. The Island Times reports directly from Peleliu about last Saturday night’s fatal accident.

An unusual, unsettling sense of quietness defines the normally lively, laid-back streets of Peleliu town. Few people here have any overwhelming desire to speak to outsiders about what happened last Saturday night. If they do speak, they do it reluctantly, in cautiously hushed tones, and with a resonant insistence on remaining nameless.  Underneath the stoic silence of a community lies a far-reaching sense of almost unspeakable tragedy.

The victims of Saturday night`s traffic crash came from the heart of their community. They were a close group of four friends, two of them males, two females: young people in their twenties and early 30s, recent college graduates. On an island where under-employment and emigration is rife, they worked hard, securing for themselves well-paying jobs; vital positions in keeping the remote island`s infrastructure up and running. After a hard day’s work, they readily immersed themselves in Peleliu`s lively party culture. They have been described as the “heart and soul” of every party on the island.

Peleliu has long been known as a place where celebrations and get-togethers can last until after sunrise on weekends, and well into the night hours even on workdays. Sitting under the shining stars on a clear night, locals often spend time together on the pristine, palm-lined beaches or at the dock, maintaining the bonds of friendship that sustain a community of less than a thousand people. Beer is consumed freely, and cannabis sativa plants are as natural and accepted as a part of the island`s flora and fauna as are coconut palms and crabs. Even some of those who don`t smoke the deep-green buds sometimes say with a sincere sense of pride that their island is reputed to grow the best weed in all of Palau. Peleliu`s young people after all have always been known for their laid-back zest for life. Even decades ago, long before marijuana became readily available on the island, the island`s youngsters would spend evenings and nights freely outdoors, smoking makeshift cigarettes made out of rice cartoon paper and coconut husk, watching films in an old Japanese building that functioned as an improvised cinema, and pranking other local families by abducting their chicken.

To islanders of Peleliu, there would have been nothing unusual or extra-ordinary in the group of four close friends driving back to town in their car, long past midnight, after a night celebrating out in nature. They certainly had cause enough to celebrate. One of their number had his birthday the following day, and it is considered almost a tradition to party with friends on the night leading into the happy day.

That happy day, though, was never to come. Before 2am that Saturday night, the car these four friends had been riding had been torn apart as it crashed into a roadside tree at a high speed. For two of the people in the car, the moist, shallow ditch that the car`s remnants then slid into would have been the final thing they saw before they passed away. Not even the strongest human body can survive being crushed underneath metal or propelled out of the car by the sheer force of the impact. Later, at the morgue in Koror, staff would discourage family members from looking at the faces of the deceased. This, it is said, was done to save them the trauma of seeing their loved ones in such a distorted position.

The two other people in the car survived. One is still in hospital Koror, with potentially life-changing injuries that this newspaper has opted not to describe in detail out of respect for her privacy.  The other survived with more minor injuries and is in Peleliu among her family.  Out of respect for the grief of the families and the wider community, this newspaper has chosen neither to name the deceased and the injured, nor to display any photos of them.

How what started as a felicitous night turned into a deadly horror story is not a question for the press, or public speculation, to answer. The true series of events will ultimately have to be determined by expert investigators. Toxicology reports, which are not completed yet, will be needed to see whether, or to what extent, the two deceased victims were under the influence of any intoxicants. Officers from Koror Criminal Investigation Division, who already visited the accident site earlier this week, are also working to determine the alleged role played by a putative second car in the accident, which may have been overtaking, or racing, the car that crashed.

In the streets of Peleliu town, however, islanders are already finding their own, unofficial ways to come to terms with what happened to the four friends; Rebuilding the fabric of their community seems to begin with finding an answer, on a moral level, to that vexed, three letter question, ´why´. One story, both a folk explanation of the crash and a powerfully anecdotal warning for generations to come, circulates: It is said that just before the crash, one of the survivors got scared of the slippery road conditions, and asked the driver of the fast-riding car to slow down. In this retelling, it is said that the driver continued ahead, responding ‘I know what I am doing’. Still scared, the person who had warned the driver, choose to put on her seat belt, the story purports. At the very moment the belt handle locked with an audible click, the crash happened, it is claimed. The person who had put on the seat belt survived, so it is said.

This retelling, unconfirmed and perhaps unconfirmable as it is, is real testimony to a community searching for a deeper sense of understanding in the face of piercing pain. In a tiny community where everyone depends upon each other to survive in isolated, remote conditions, the loss of individuals cuts deeper into the flesh of shared existence than in any faceless megacity.

As the news of the accident spread through Peleliu town that fateful Saturday night, people started to go tothe docks where the emergency boat would arrive, where the bodies would be brought. They did so unasked, in a rainy, inhospitably dark night. By the time day-break came, hundreds of islanders had gathered. They did so to pay their quiet respects to their deceased relatives, friends or neighbours.

They also did so in order not to be alone. To face the pain together, as a community, as an island.

It is in that spirit that islanders gathered together flowers, beer, spirits, fruits, cigarettes, and even a cannabis sativa stem. They put them on a table, next to the road-side crash location. There in that place of deafening loss, of tragic eternal parting, they wanted to set a memorial. A memorial to the shared joys of friendship, to the unforgettable celebrations of togetherness, to the emotional bonds that hold their community together. Bonds that make life worth living. Bonds that have now been ripped apart by tragedy.  Bonds that cannot be remade.

No one knows what the future holds for the people of Peleliu. But everyone senses that nothing can be ever be the same again. (Colin C. Cortbus/Reporting from Peleliu State)