Star Valley Town Manager Tim Grier’s Caribbean dream vacation with his son turned into a nightmare when the pair found themselves caught in the middle of a shoot-out between warring gang members.
Grier and his son, Joey Grier, were nearly killed when the open-air tourist bus they were on was sprayed with bullets in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands on July 12.
A 14-year-old girl from Puerto Rico riding in a nearby van was killed as her family looked on. One of the gunmen was also killed and another tourist sustained non-life-threatening injuries, according to Grier.
“It was very traumatic for me,” Grier said. “I don’t know if I will ever forget hearing the screams of women.”
As for his son, who witnessed several people getting shot only a few feet from
him, Grier said he can’t imagine it not having an effect on him.
“He saw the blood and watched the people die,” he said. “They just didn’t seem to care where they were shooting.
“Whatever started it, they didn’t seem to care they were shooting through our vans.”
According to witnesses and online reports, Grier said he has pieced together what happened on that sunny, tropical day in one of the world’s most popular cruise ports.
Grier believes gang members attending a nearby funeral began spraying each other with bullets over another shooting that had occurred a month earlier on the island.
The Griers and more than a dozen other tourists from around the world found themselves unarmed, abandoned by their drivers and stuck in the middle of the shoot-out, which Grier compared to a scene from a war zone.
This was the first time the Griers had taken a Caribbean vacation together.
Every year, Grier said he likes to take his son, who lives in Oregon with his mother full-time, on a summer vacation.
The father and son have visited Alaska and California and this was the first time Grier had taken his son out of the country.
A cruise through the Caribbean islands sounded like a safe and easy way to take in the sights. Grier booked a trip on the Carnival cruise ship Victory, and the pair flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with the ship departing on July 11 for a six-island sail.
St. Thomas was the ship’s first stop. As soon as the Griers got off the boat, they were met by hordes of concessionaires, peddling sightseeing tours around the island.
As the Griers pondered what they should do, an Australian couple they had met on the boat suggested they ride on a “safari bus,” which typically holds 20 to 25 people and makes a loop of the island hot spots.
The group loaded into a bus and the driver took the group around for some time, ultimately driving up a hill to Coki Point where a popular beach is nearby.
At the top of the hill, two men stopped the bus near a cemetery and the driver got out to talk with them. The men said the bus cannot go down to the beach because a funeral is going on and it is too crowded. Another safari bus pulled up next to the bus the Griers were on, only this bus is full of people, mostly from Puerto Rico.
All of sudden, several men jumped out of a red Honda Civic stopped in front of the busses, grabbed guns out of a duffel bag and began shooting.
Grier said he and Joey immediately dropped to the floor of the bus for cover, Grier lying over Joey’s body to protect him.
“We started to hear shots and thought it was firecrackers, but then we heard shouting and we went down instantly,” he said.
One of the men talking with the Griers’ driver was shot in the chest only six feet from where Joey was sitting.
His body, later identified as 18-year-old Shahid Joseph, slumped down on the van’s front bumper.
A silver car rammed into the Griers’ van and more shooting erupted.
“Bullets were flying everywhere,” Grier said. “I felt the tires on the van go out.”
Grier later learned another tour bus, this one carrying tourists from New York, watched as the gunmen unloaded bullets into the vans.
Because the van carrying Puerto Ricans was full, Grier said they had nowhere to hide.
“They were just getting slaughtered,” he said.
A 14-year-old celebrating her Quincerera with family was hit and died instantly.
A bullet nicked one of the Australians in the Griers’ van.
Meanwhile, the drivers of all three vans bailed into the woods, taking cover.
“The awful part was hearing the screams of the women,” he said. “You could hear the bullets hitting them.”
A cop at Coki Beach heard the shots and came running, firing off rounds. Grier then heard sirens coming up the hill.
One of the men in the van from New York jumped into the driver’s seat of the van and started to back that van down the hill. The people in the van yelled at the Griers to hop on.
“We jumped in the New York van, but there was mass confusion,” he said.
As the van made its way out of the area, the driver reappeared and started driving. The van carrying the Puerto Ricans backed out and headed for the hospital.
Later, everyone was back at the ship, where the captain spoke.
Carnival refused to refund Grier his money and the pair was forced to continue with the rest of the cruise.
“Carnival didn’t refund anything, they denied all responsibly,” he said. “I picked a cruise specifically because I thought it was safe, but I don’t believe it now.
“We were disarmed by Carnival because they never said be cautious because a gang war is going on.”
Grier felt the local government and media downplayed the event.
“When tourists are getting caught in the crossfire and getting killed, it is downplayed because the tourism business is so big.”
Grier said the rest of the trip was tainted.
“It became a weird thing after that,” he said. “Cruises are about acting silly and it seemed terribly inappropriate after that.”