Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

Tragic Story of Muriel and Nona

It is possible that you were in French Harbour lately, walking westward all the way down the paved road that meanders through French Harbour Point. Passing colorful though faded lumber homes and stark cement churches on either side, Gio’s Restaurant to your left on the seaside near to the harbor entrance and, a few minutes after also to your left, Romeo’s Restaurant. In between those, the two-story structure that held the “McNab Store” on the ground floor level for several generations still stands, behind which there was a modest dock that was among the many that witnessed the island’s eras of bananas and coconut copra. You then reach the construction site for the new bridge connecting the Point and the Hill and slip into the Pulpería “La Fe” for a bottle of cold Honduran Coca Cola. The rise of the bridge would have obstructed the old French Harbour cemetery, just across the canal at the start of the Hill, from your line of sight.

The cemetery is long closed off and is surrounded by a cement and picket fence. Among the aging gravestones beneath the shadows of Flambeaux trees growing along the fence, side to side there sit the matching gravestones of sisters Muriel Zapata (May 17, 1916 – April 24, 1944) and Nona McNab (February 27, 1918 – April 24, 1944).

I could not count the number of times I’ve heard the events recollected, nor the number of people recollecting them, of when the sisters died. All being accounts that evolved from the first telling – additional details here, slight variations on the details there; evolving over decades in conversations on front porches, in church yards, on the back decks of shrimp boats, from Oak Ridge clear down to Coxen Hole and points in between.

April 24, 1944 was a Monday and a day that Muriel and Nona died down off Brick Bay Point. They were among some 13 to 16 persons in a large, motorized lifeboat steaming from French Harbour to Coxen Hole to see a film. It was a religious film that was continuing to be screened well after Easter, with some recollecting the theme as the Ten Commandments and others as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Learning of the excursion with only a little time to prepare, and so unable to find someone to look after her three young children for the day, Nona had taken them along: Gwendolyn (8), Yvonne (6) and Winfield Scott (4). Her husband, James Ray, was at sea. She wore a pea-green dress and walking to the landing near the canal bridge she had held Winfield Scott while Gwendolyn and Yvonne walked beside her. Muriel was accompanied by her husband, Edward. They were the parents of three young children who had not come along.

Life boat was broadsided and swamped, capsizing.

The weather was fresh as they left the harbor, but not expected to be a problem. Off Brick Bay Point, though, a slight change in direction and the lifeboat was broad sided and swamped, capsizing.

Utter chaos and panic. Where are the children? Screams from those who were not good swimmers, piercing above the sound of the waves crashing the reef. Everything and everyone being pushed towards the sharp reef. After some time that seemed eternal, a process of those capable of helping others past the reef and over honeycomb rocks and to the beach, and a return to help again. Nona and her three children huddled next to the keel on the upturned boat, in a holding pattern. Muriel among those helping others, going in and coming back out.One by one the children were rescued, with Nona accompanying the rescuer of the third child but, once at the beach, collapsing and dying of suspected heart failure. In dismay they stood around her, when it was realized that Muriel was not accounted for.

On April 25, at daylight, two men began the walk back to French Harbour. One was shirtless, having removed it to wipe blood from the gash on Muriel’s head and to cover her drowned body. Along the path to French Harbour, there would have been the sweet smell of mango trees in bloom and intermittently, gullies from which they drank water. The others waited on the beach in Brick Bay, some along with the children in the shade of the coconut trees. Winfield Scott remembered that it was “Berkeley” who paddled him all the way back to French Harbour. “Yes, Berkeley. That boy who was raised by Ms. Jessie.”

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