Utility work halted after burials disrupted in 1954 are uncovered in Cruz Bay

Employees of V.I. Water and Power Authority contractor Haugland Energy Group trench and install conduit for a project that places electrical equipment underground in Frank Bay, St. John.

Utility work has halted around the cemetery in Cruz Bay, St. John, after contractors uncovered human remains from at least four individuals whose bodies were desecrated by careless road work in the 1950s and 60s.

The St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Committee discussed the situation during a meeting Tuesday, and Sean Krigger, director of the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office, explained that “this is no fault of WAPA, this is no fault of the contractor,” Haugland Energy, which is working on the Cruz Bay trenching and line burial project.

The problem was created decades ago and has been “kicked down the road” to the present day, Krigger said, but the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and all involved with the project “are committed to ensuring that this project will cause no more harm to these burials.”

Archaeologist David Brewer said the road going up the hill was cut in 1954 and “at the time it was just a dirt road, and apparently they paid no attention to anything other than building this road, so they cut through the cemetery.”

At the time, “they had no qualms about it and bones were scattered about,” Brewer said. In the 1960s the road was paved with asphalt and “again, bones were scattered about. People cared, but there were no legal consequences, let me put it that way.”

Before the current construction project began, Brewer said he and others weren’t aware of the full extent of the desecration. While it’s not unheard of to find bone fragments during excavation, Brewer said they did not anticipate finding full burials with complete, or near-complete sets, of remains.

The project is being funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and an archaeologist has been on site monitoring the excavation work

“when we started out and bones were found immediately,” Brewer said.

The burial was not complete, as “it had been damaged by that whole road building business back in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he added.

To date, four burials have been uncovered, and Brewer said there will inevitably be more whenever work resumes, as the crews get closer to the cemetery area itself.

Krigger explained that the burials will “require a higher level of investigation and retrieval that goes way beyond the scope of work that FEMA approved for just the archaeological monitoring.”

As a result, work has been paused so the contractor can put together a new scope of work and contract,” Krigger said.

“We’re stepping back and looking at this with a new set of eyes, and FEMA is actually right about this, because it’s a bigger project now than anyone anticipated,” Brewer said.

The identity and age of the remains is currently unknown, and Brewer said there will be further carbon dating and laboratory analysis.

“They’re going to have to undergo not just C14 dating, they’ll have to undergo DNA, strontium, they do all those tests and it’s got to be paid for. Luckily, FEMA is involved. Because of their involvement, they have to pay for this,” Brewer said. “So, at the end of the day, we’ve got it covered. FEMA has to pay for this, and they know the situation, so actually it couldn’t have turned out better.”

While the situation is certainly not ideal for those whose remains have been uncovered, “they’ll get the analysis, they’ll get the treatment,” as well as reburial, Brewer said.

After the third set of remains was found, “the parameters within this situation had changed, because we were not dealing with scattered remains. We had come upon an intact burial,” Krigger said. “So there was no way any work was going to take place within that confines until that burial was addressed.”

“I’m very pleased at the outcome here and the results, and I’m pleased to see that the system in place works,” said committee member David Knight Sr.

The Historic Preservation Committee had previously warned Water and Power Authority not to undertake any excavation without an archaeologist present — not even test pits — and Knight said he felt that “because of that and because of the number of times that WAPA came before the HPC, we feel very much like a part of this project.”

Committee member Enrique Rodriguez asked if there’s any way “we can make amends” for the “absolute desecration of a St. Johnian burial site” in 1954.

“There’s going to be a community discussion, rightfully so. What happened years ago, it needs to be addressed,” Krigger said. As a community, “we’re going to have to have a conversation about how we recognize, honor, and mitigate the adverse effects that took place years ago.”

“We do need to right this wrong and make way for a proper interment, or re-interment for these remains that we’ve found,” committee member Kurt Marsh Jr. agreed. “I do believe that we should honor and respect the dead, because they are dead from this plane but they are living in another, and so I think it’s only right that we do that.”

— Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email scarlson@dailynews.vi.