In the Bahian town of Bom Jesus da Lapa, on the Sao Francisco River in Brazil, Where I was a Peace Corps volunteer high school teacher, the religious festival of the Bom Jesus (Good Jesus) was nearing its end. The day was August 6, 1963, the final day. Since early June, as in every year, pilgrims had begun to arrive in a trickle and then by the truckload to pray at a Catholic church situated in a cave in expectation of divine intervention or a miracle. The cave was part of a towering limestone outcropping overlooking the town. Inside stalactites dripped water, considered holy, and there was an area called the "Sala das milagres" (room of miracles). The pilgrim’s stay usually lasted no more than a couple of days but those who departed were replaced by more and more newcomers and by the beginning of August the crush of pilgrims was great, numbering into the thousands.
Joining the thousands that year was the president of Brazil, Joao Goulart. He had been vice-president a year earlier and become president only after the hasty departure of the former president, Janio Quadros, who had abruptly resigned. Goulart was scheduled to appear at a function at the local headquarters of a government agency, the Sao Francisco Valley Commission (CVSF) to speak, the speech being given in a rest house adjacent to my residence in the commission compound.
A gathering of locals collected outside my house awaiting the president’s arrival. After a meeting with the commission chefe, Dr. Lascarus, Goulart was escorted on foot to the meeting place, leading the entourage himself. As he approached, head down, looking neither left nor right, I and another volunteer, Ken Flies, impulsively stepped out with our hands extended to greet the president, saying, in Portuguese, "Bom dia Senhor Presidente. Muito Prazer."
With undisguised indifference, he raised his head cautiously and gave us the once-over. Being unable to ignore our outstretched hands, he replied by nodding slightly and giving us in return a limp, damp hand to shake that felt like cold fish and, without a word, continued on his way. His bodyguards, no doubt taken aback by our effrontery, had made no effort to intervene.
That afternoon, in company with an American missionary in his Piper Apache airplane, I flew over the town, circling especially over the church plaza where Goulart would make another appearance. Below us in the narrow cobblestone streets leading to the cave and the plaza, thronged thousands of pilgrims. We circled at less than a thousand feet going round and round the hill, losing sight at times of the festivities. On about the fourth or fifth pass we saw the president’s car drive up and then, on the next pass, we saw a column of smoke rising from the plaza and people running frantically away from the scene. Something awful had happened.
We immediately thought there had been an attempt on the president’s life and hurried to the airport. We soon learned that the smoke we had seen had been caused by a box of fireworks having blown up after a rocket misfired. A number of pilgrims were badly burned by the resulting explosion.
The president was rushed to the airport and flew off in great haste. The injured were left to fend for themselves in a place where medical facilities were sorely lacking.
Walter James Murray
Bahia - BR2