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The Hotel Guiria tragedy
In the late 19th century, severe civil unrest in Venezuela saw an influx of thousands of Venezuelans to Trinidad. Now, this was not new, since from at least the 1840s peons known as the “cocoa panyols” had supplied seasonal labour for the booming chocolate industry; and Venezuela provided at least 70 per cent of all food imported into the island in the period 1820-1930, with corn, cattle, pigs, plantains, leather, tasso (dried meat), cheese and yams being shipped in great quantities to San Fernando and Port-of-Spain. Indeed, live beef on the hoof was brought to the sandy beach on the Woodbrook foreshore (which in those days was just south of Ariapita Avenue) and then herded to market in a wild stampede.
The class of immigrant in the period 1890-1915, however, was of a better breeding, being gentlefolk who came here with their fine grandee manners and cultured ways. Not a few of them were Generalissimos or senior military men ousted by turmoil. Some, like the Dragos, Forjonels, Pradas and De Limas, were able to establish prosperous businesses and put down permanent roots in the island. Others were merely waiting until peace returned to their homeland so that they could recoup their losses and establish themselves. These itinerants lived in two respectable boarding houses: the Hotel Miranda owned by David A Nanton and located on Henry Street, and Hotel Guiria owned by Joaquin Pildain, a Portuguese, located on the corner of Almond Walk (Broadway) and Marine (Independence) Square. These institutions provided cramped and often uncomfortable quarters where entire families were sometimes squashed into one or two rooms. Women and children in particular resided in these circumstances while the men in general wandered about the city seeking out fellows in similar circumstances and congregating to drown their sorrows.
Hotel Guiria burns
In 1895, one Sunday morning at 3:45 am, a fire broke out at the Hotel Guiria, allegedly from a lamp in a toilet. It soon engulfed the structure; its stone walls stood firm, but it was filled with combustible material such as wooden walls, roof beams, stairs, etc. Chaos ensued with victims being trapped, since the main accommodations were on the first floor with the ground floor.
Mr Heromino Fagasin jumped out of a window and died of a broken neck. Another, Mr Kramer, and several lady guests died as the roof collapsed under them while they were on it trying to leap to another building. Mrs De Osio and her children also leapt to the ground where the young ones survived. She herself was naked from being burnt, and rolled over the stony ground. Several policemen were present and she pleaded with them to carry her to a more comfortable resting place, but the kindly officers of the law ignored her. She was aided by the Rev Fr Emmanuel OP, who had run across from the Cathedral presbytery on Charlotte Street.
He administered last rites to Mrs De Osio and she died on the ground. Perhaps the most tragic was the case of the widowed Mrs Escheveria and her children. Being late alerted to the fire, she saw her maid with the two youngest babes perish in the flames. The brave woman then threw her other three children, who were already burnt, into the square. Her twin daughters Rose and Aurora, aged 12, and their sister Claudia, were terribly injured. By this time, ambulance carts as well as other wheeled conveyances had arrived to take the wounded to the Colonial Hospital, almost two miles away at the top of Charlotte Street near the Queen’s Park Savannah. One was parked several hundred feet away from the dying Escheveria children. Rose, still able to walk, but naked, bleeding and burnt, begged a policeman standing nearby to carry her to the cart, to which he replied—in the best caring form of the Trinidad policeman—that she would have to walk since he could not soil his tunic by touching her, far less than picking the injured girl up.
One has but to pause to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Both the young girl and her siblings died. In all, the death toll was 50, some being killed outright in the building and others dying later in the hospital. It was a dark day indeed for Port-of-Spain. The hotel did not recover from the terrible incident and it was never rebuilt. The site today is the one occupied by KFC on Independence Square.