In 1956, Messrs Sprostons Ltd of British Guiana was engaged by the Government of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla to advise and assist in repairing damage to marine facilities caused by the passage of Hurricane Greta in October. The hurricane had destroyed the MV Anslyn and in 1958, a fire caused serious damage to the MV Rehoboth resulting in drastically diminished inter-island transport.
An order for the new vessel was submitted in 1959. The MV Christena was built by Sprostons on the banks of the Demerara. They produced an all steel, all welded vessel of 66 feet in length and 16 feet wide, powered by two 170 BHP Caterpillar Marine Diesel Engines giving it a speed of 12 knots. It was designed to carry 125 deck passengers and 30 cabin passengers. It also had a cargo capacity of 5 tons. According to British Guiana's Daily Argosy, it was to be "a show-piece in the West Indies".
The MV Christena was launched on the 29 May 1959 and dropped anchor in Basseterre Barbour on Sunday 7 June. According to the schedule published in the Labour Spokesman of the 11 June 1959 the vessel was to do three trips between St. Kitts and Nevis on week days. She was docked on an annual basis for maintenance and repairs. Her last docking was in Barbados from the 9 February to the 7 May 1970.
The vessel was equipped with safety equipment, but at the time, health and safety issues often took second place to convenience. It was an issue that was often noted even in buses long after the Christena was lost. Both passengers and driver would have been willing to overlook capacity. Passengers preferred to cram into a full bus rather than wait for the next one. Drivers saw a few extra fares per trip if passengers “small-up” themselves. The overloading of the ferry was noted on a number of occasions by persons who would have been aware of the danger that this posed. These included W L Maguire, Warden for Nevis in 1959, Delisle Walwyn and Co in 1960 and Cecil O Byron acting Warden for Nevis in 1961. On the 12 July 1970, Julian B Cox, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Communications, Works and Transport saw the Christena making its trips after a cricket game and felt it was overloaded. He talked to Captain James Ponteen about this but the Captain denied that he had taken on too many passengers. People claimed that often the number of people that left the boat seemed to be coming from a steamer.
On Saturday the 1 August 1970, the start of the August weekend, a large number of people was trying to make its way to Nevis. These included Nevisian vendors who had been in St. Kitts selling their produce, holiday makers heading over to the horse races, nuns going to a retreat, people going over to spend the weekend with relatives and Nevisians returning home after a week's work in St. Kitts. At least 319 persons were on board. It left Basseterre at 3.30pm.
It was not unusual for the boat to take in water especially when it was so crowded. That day the amount of water entering the lower part of the vessel was making the crew uncomfortable. Then, when the Christena passed Nag's Head and entered the open channel the vessel started to roll. The Captain ordered some cargo adjusted and asked some passengers to change places. Some took no notice of the Captain's instructions. As the ferry approached the Narrows, it gave one final role and started to sink. Panic grabbed hold of everybody in the water. Some were able to hold on to floating debris but other who did not know how to swim quickly lost their struggle to stay alive.
Rupert Wade and Earle Parris were in a fishing boat and noticed the wayward rolling of the ferry. They were the first on the scene. The boat was small and could not rescue many but they worked hard to save as many as they could. Michael King who was taking family to Nevis put his passengers down at Nag's Head and joined the rescue effort. Captain Miller, Sonny Skeete and the crew on the Sea Hunter 1 also attempted to rescue passengers. They pulled both the living and the dead out of the water and headed for Jones Bay making several trips. Persons who were attempting to swim to safety, noticed a vessel, later identified as the Hawthorne Enterprise sailing in their direction and started swimming towards it. However the ship suddenly changed course and moved away. Its Captain and crew later denied knowing about the accident.
Emergency response was rudimentary at the time and took long to become effective. The search continued into the night with the help of American, British and French naval vessels. There were 92 survivors. 227 died in the disaster most of them from Nevis.
Immediately people started looking for reason for what happened. With few exceptions, most dismissed the overcrowding because this was a normal occurrence and had never presented a problem in the past. However, in the House of Assembly during a discussion of a resolution expressing “sympathy to those bereaved by the sudden national disaster”, Fred Parris, opposition member from Nevis objected strongly to the use of the word “sudden”, adding “we have had our warnings, we must blame ourselves.” Over crowding certainly meant that a larger number of persons lost their lives.
Obeah and the supernatural came to the mind of many. Premier Bradshaw stated that “the hand of Fate has chilled what would have been the exuberance of our spirit” on a holiday weekend. When Fr. Eke of the Anglian Church suggested that one should not attribute the disaster to “God’s Will”, even people in government turned on him. The Hawthorne Enterprise was blamed for leaving the scene at a time when its assistance could have saved lives. Much later, Whitman Browne, in his The Christena Disaster Revisited noted that three manholes in the bulkheads were inadvertently left open after some repairs were done to the boat’s exhaust system on the 30th July 1970. As the Christena traveled between St. Kitts and Nevis, water entered the bulkheads until it sank, on the fourth trip after the repairs.
The tragedy was a devastating loss for both Islands but more so for Nevis as the majority of those who lost their lives were breadwinners from the sister island. They left behind families, often with young children, to cope as best they could. It also showed how unprepared the State was to cope with such a calamity.