Terra Charmont sits quietly and calmly, sipping a mug of tea. It has been three weeks since life as she knew it came to a tragic and abrupt halt. She has lived through a nightmare that most could not imagine.
Yet she is calm, she is focused, and by outward appearances, she is holding it together.
The focus for her from the beginning has been the same: to bring her boys home with her, honour them so people remember them, and the third step is justice. In some ways, her quest for justice is holding her together.
“In my own mind, I don’t have an option to fall apart until that is finished, and I can’t let it go. There are way too many reports in the media and from personal stories of the negligence of the resort.”
Terra’s memory of the day is vivid and horrific. The first thing she remembers is at about 9 a.m. hearing the blast from her room at the Grand Riviera Princess resort.
“I thought maybe a balcony had fallen. I opened the front door and it was a cloud of dust,” she said.
Terra and her daughter Megan left their room through the ground floor balcony. They came around the corner to the lobby and right away she told her daughter to look away. She saw a huge crater surrounded by people injured and collapsed from the blast. A haze of plaster dust blanketed the scene.
Immediately Terra found someone to keep Megan back so she was unable to view the scene. Terra yelled at the staff to bring first aid kits and defibrillators but they had no idea where they were or how to help.
“It was obvious there were some life threatening and severe injuries, she recalls. “One victim was unable to move, likely a spinal injury, and guests were trying to stabilize him. But when the ambulance finally arrived he was moved very roughly by the EMTs.”
Unable to help, and not wanting to get in the way of guests who were nurses, paramedics and doctors, Terra kept returning to the site to view the victims.
“I was trying to walk through and see if any of them were Chris and John,” she said.
This began a day of dread as she searched for answers all day as to the whereabouts of her husband and son. Three Canadians, a Toronto couple and a Pickering, Ontario woman, came to her side to help her and her daughter as they tried to gather information from officials at the scene.
Resort officials were dismissive at best, and when Terra tried to find help herself she was threatened with arrest if she did not back away from the scene.
It was early evening and after dark when they learned Terra’s family had been found, despite the fact Chris and John’s bodies were removed hours earlier. Terra and her daughter were taken to a conference room where officials callously informed them of her husband and son’s demise. Despite a request from Terra not to tell them bad news in front of her daughter, they coolly told them the two had perished. The family’s reaction was expected, but the manner of dealing with it by the authorities, which included pinning Terra in a chair, readying her to be injected with a hypodermic needle was not.
“Right there is where I had to shut off my emotions completely,” she said.
That night she was required to identify the lost members of her family. For the first time since the explosion, Terra found some comfort.
“It was the first relief I had all day because they were killed instantly, they didn’t suffer. All day as a mom I was thinking my baby was hurt,” she said.
The initial reports said the explosion was caused by naturally occurring swamp gas. Media outlets have reported that this is not a valid cause, and point to other possible sources of the explosion.
“Thankfully the tourism industry is so important down there, the officials said ‘no way,’ because there would be explosions all over Mexico, you are not going to get away with that,” she said. “I don’t blame the Mexicans. The people down there were warm and wonderful, and working hard. I feel bad they’ve lost their jobs. Who I blame is these resorts that go down to these countries, take advantage of a poor infrastructure system, and throw up a money machine with no concern for their guests’ safety. To me that is who needs to be held accountable.”
The treatment she received from the resort was shocking to Terra. Guests were checking in, booking excursions and partying immediately after the blast, unaware of what had happened. As makeshift memorials sprang up near the site, armed guards took them down as fast as they went up. When the family had to move to a different room, they were paraded through a crowd of people partying, oblivious to what happened.
“To this day I have not spoken to anyone from the resort to offer their condolences, or ask, what can we do?” she said. “Just no respect for our grief or their memories.”
She praises the efforts of WestJet. The next day the company had a full team of councillors, a private flight for victims, helped them through customs, and provided privacy for the families.
“My main mission right now and my main focus for them is justice. I have been very focused and have started collecting statements from guests and those affected,” she said.
She has found and contacted the other Canadian families who lost family members in the explosion.
“It’s not just for building a support network but to share information…just so we are not all out there fumbling on what is the next step,” she said.
Terra wants to bring awareness to the risks of travelling to a foreign place that may not have the same standards as Canada.
“I want people to know, if you go to Mexico, it is beautiful and people are great, but it’s a developing country. The emergency response plans are non-existent. The medical response is poor at best,” she said. “If you make the decision to go down there, you are taking on a certain amount of risk. It is not Canada.”
She said the government is unstable and so much of the police force are corrupt, they may not have your best interests at heart. Inform yourself. www.mexicovacationawareness.com Read the stories and “Your Thoughts.” If you still decide to go, just be aware that there are some things you can not prepare for or protect yourself against. And if you have an emergency you are going to realize how alone and vulnerable you are.
She said even in the midst of the tragedy she wanted to get her message out.
“I’ve been trying to pressure officials too, because any government official that came up to us and asked ‘what can we do?’ whether they meant it or not, I thought that was my opportunity. I said ‘you can open a full investigation, you can be sure that this doesn’t get swept under the carpet,’” she said.
Terra wants Drumheller and area to remember Chris and John as they were, and not the victims of a tragedy.
“From my perspective as a mom and wife, I don’t want to allow that one second of their life, that one horrible moment of their life, to define their life. We have been trying to show the positive aspects of who they are and help people remember how they knew them and not be sad for what happened,” she said.
Her memory of John still makes her smile. The first thought that comes to mind for her in describing him is that he was a nut.
“He was goofy and funny and he loved to make people laugh,” said Terra. “He was so happy with life.”
She also says he was very generous, without asking he would, for example donate his birthdays money to help kids in Roatan.
Chris would also quietly help others. If any neighbour asked for help he would quickly jump into action.
“For Chris, the biggest thing that people knew him for was his commitment to family,” she said. “He didn’t want to be anywhere else, he wanted to be with his family, and I am grateful for that.”
“The kindness they put out has come back and hopefully Megan and I can pay those forward again,” she said.
To honour the two she is hoping to set up a memorial scholarship. She would like to work through the hockey community in Drumheller to honour those who show the values of dedication, honour, community involvement and respect.
She says her strength is coming from others who have shown support.
“We have so many people around the world praying for us and thinking of us, and the positive energy that is coming to us and holding us up is just unbelievable,” she said.
“Plus I have my daughter right now, she is my world, she is my strength, she is my reason to get up and keep going,” she said.
Part of the help she has received has been the collective hug of Drumhellerites who have come to her side to help her through her initial struggles; from creating beautiful memorials and tributes, bringing food, helping her with media requests to giving her the space she needs. She laughs and says she has a kitchen full of dishes she doesn’t even recognize from the outpouring of her neighbours.
“Drumheller has been so phenomenal, there are so many people I will not be able to say thank you to,” she said. “It has been hard for everyone here, because in a small town everybody knows each other, but that is part of the support system.”
She smiles when she tells The Mail that out-of-town family have come and after seeing the outpouring, said they are moving to Drumheller.
“It is not normal to have a town lift you up like that,” she said. “We’ve been very grateful. Megan and I were obviously incredibly traumatized coming back. Knowing that Drumheller had our back was a huge part of the healing process, we are not left alone to face this.”
The attendance at their memorial service held November 20 was incredible and everyone who took on the tasks of making lunch, packing flowers, clean up and more deserves a huge thank you.
The next day we buried them in Nordegg, John snuggled safely in his daddy’s arms. The support followed us there with family and friends helping us through it with their kindnesses and prayers.
Terra has a simple message coming this far through this tragedy, and that is to have no regrets.
“That is how we need to live our lives. When they went, there was no question in my mind, or their minds, how much they were loved,” she said. “It made me appreciate that every single day you have to live by that. To regret nothing. To let the people in your life know how much they are cared about. Let the little things go.”
For now, she still has a journey ahead, her mission to get justice, and to eventually heal. While she wants to bring awareness and accountability, when she is successful, she will have to face her loss head on.
“I know it’s not great, eventually you have to face it, but for right now, it’s not the time yet,” she said. “I think so much of it was I had to turn those emotions off and do what I had to do. Maybe it will hit me, maybe it won’t, and maybe the positives they gave me will come through and be happiness.”
Suddenly serious, her voice softens. “I won’t say I don’t miss them like crazy.”