Twenty-five years of volcanic activity in Montserrat has spawned a kaleidoscope of powerful images: Towering mushroom ash clouds, raging infernos and darting pyroclastic flows. There are also dazzling aerial shots of the newly formed Tar River delta, a result of the sarcastic volcano expanding Montserrat’s land area while stealing more than half its livable space.
But some of the most poignant photos are those of the people who endured nature’s wrath.
In 1997, award-winning photographer Charles Trainor Jr. of the Miami Herald traveled to Montserrat twice to chronicle the volcanic crisis. He snapped an array of searing images. But his signature shot was taken in Salem at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, which served as a shelter.
It shows a teenage girl clutching her infant son. Her hair is uncombed and her eyes are distant. In the background is a stained-glass window featuring angelic images with outstretched arms, almost as if reaching out to mother and son.
Trainor received critical acclaim for the photo, which ran prominently in the Miami Herald and was even considered for a national journalism contest.
The photo was taken Monday, August 11, 1997. Deserine O’Garro, the young mother in the photo, saw it for the first time July 20, 2020.
“OMG!” she responded via text. “That was so long ago. Is that my baby?”
The baby, who was three days old in the photo, will soon be 23 years old. He recently earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from Sheffield Hallam University.
Since moving to England 23 years ago Deserine has furthered her education, worked hard and raised her son. She is also a Level 3 qualified hairdresser, proudly earning certification in a field she says is her true passion.
Much of her early life in Montserrat is now in the rear-view mirror. But objects behind us are sometimes closer than they appear.
Viewing that photo brought many emotions rushing back.
Deserine’s somber demeanor in the image underscored the turmoil-filled atmosphere at the time. “I had a lot on my mind,” she says.
Foremost in her thoughts was the health of her son, whom she named Raphael after his father. The boy had to be flown to Antigua for emergency surgery a couple weeks after birth. He was born with pyloric stenosis, a common ailment of the small intestines in newborns — mostly boys — in which they are unable to keep down food.
Even after the successful operation he was still in a delicate state. So the logical next move was for Deserine and family to relocate to Britain, where the infant could receive better (and free) health care.
A VILLAGE DISPLACED
When volcanic activity began on Tuesday, July 18, 1995, Deserine was a carefree 16-year-old living in the Shooter’s Hill area of St. Patrick’s. She had just completed fourth form at the Montserrat Secondary School. Her village, along with other environs in the south — plus villages in the east — were first to be evacuated. Their close proximity to the volcano made staying there too risky.
Deserine, her mother and five other family members were forced to move. They first stayed with Deserine’s aunt in Delvins but later had to move farther north when the Delvins-Cork Hill area also was evacuated. Over two years the family stayed in three different shelters: Salem Secondary School, the Catholic church, and the building that later became Lookout Primary School.
“The church shelter wasn’t that bad because it had other people from the South,” she says. “But at the Salem Secondary School we had to mix with all kind of people.”
Deserine remembers her teenage rebellion. The shelters had no curfews and little supervision. Her mother had her hands full with her other children and grandchildren. Deserine soon found herself in the family way.
“I had a no-care attitude growing up,” she admits. “I didn’t like being told what to do. I was a mouthy kid. But I had to grow up really quick when I got pregnant. That’s when reality kicked in.”
Her newborn’s health issues — plus the looming specter of an active volcano — forced her to mature even faster.
In late October of 1997, Deserine and family took a ferry to Antigua, then boarded a BWIA flight with dozens of other Montserratians destined for London’s Heathrow Airport. Although she was leaving the upheaval of the volcano behind, it was the saddest day of her life.
“I love Montserrat,” she says. “I cried so much when we left. But I had no choice. I was still a child and my mom decided she was coming to the UK. Actually, my mom had more to worry about than I did. She had three of her six kids, my cousins and my grandfather.”
MONTSERRAT STILL HOME
Despite its destructive force, the volcano opened up the world to many who otherwise might not have gotten the opportunity to see other walks of life.
Deserine is thankful for the opportunity to continue her education and get proper health care for her son, who is now a healthy young man. But she also makes it clear that Montserrat will always be her true love.
“I love picking up and going home for months at a time,” she says. “The peace and tranquility, no stress and worries. . . . I eventually plan to move back to Montserrat. I never liked the cold.”
At 41, Deserine is still only a mother of one child. Her son’s father died a few years ago. “Raising him as a single mother wasn’t easy,” she says. “I’m not sure if I will have more kids, but if it happens I would welcome them with open arms.”
Through it all Deserine says she has evolved.
“Sometimes life throws you a curveball and you’ve just got to ride that curveball out. I’ve got to be strong for my son and teach him that no matter what may come your way you’re strong enough to overcome it.”
Deserine has been employed for the past two years with Boots UK — a pharmacy chain similar to Walgreens in the United States. Previously, she was a supervisor at a restaurant. She also has a steady number of hairdressing clients. She specializes in braids but can do it all, she says.
Every now and then she can’t help glancing at the dramatic photo of her and baby Raphael. “When I showed it to him he said, ‘Mum, why do I look so white?’ ” Deserine said laughing.
Mother and son are all grown up now.
That classic photo from 1997 embodies how far they have come.
Now they’re focused on the bigger picture.
“I love picking up and going home for months at a time. The peace and tranquility, no stress and worries. . . . I eventually plan to move back to Montserrat.”