Tue | Jun 25, 2019

Remembering Kendal

Published:Sunday | September 2, 2018 | 12:00 AMArmitabh Sharma
Site of the Kendal train crash - September 1, 1957.
Front of Jamaica Government Railway, Fare Ticket - Excursion 2nd Class to Montego Bay and Back - Stamped: September 1, 1957.
Front of Jamaica Government Railway, Fare Ticket - Excursion 2nd Class to Montego Bay and Back - Stamped: September 1, 1957.
Kendal crash train disaster.
Amitabh Sharma

A train pulled by two diesel engines, hauling a dozen creaking, squeaking wooden cars, tearing through the countryside on a quiet, starry night - sounds like the opening scenes of a Western. Rife with anticipation, something is about to go down. Unfortunately, what was about to unfold on the night of September 1, 1957, was not a work of fiction projected on to a 35mm frame.

An excursion train from Montego Bay bound for Kingston was packed with over 1,500 passengers - most presumably sleeping, some awake, chatting or just staring into the night skies whizzing past. For some, it was going to be their last journey.

At around 11.30 p.m. on that fateful Sunday night, as the trained approached Kendal, Manchester, the train got out of control on a steep mile-long falling gradient. The engines chuffed at about 55 miles per hour at the foot of the incline ... . Here, the lead coach overturned to the right on a sharp left-handed curve.

Mayhem ensued.

The next eight coaches overshot the tracks, ending in a mangled heap - either destroyed or severely damaged, the engines still piercing through ... halting after a quarter of a mile.

According to the report on the derailment, 190 people lost their lives or were missing, presumed killed and more than 1,000 were injured.

This train accident was described as the worst rail disaster in Jamaica's history and the second worst rail disaster in the world at that time.

The cause of the accident was later determined to be the accidental closure of an angled wheel (brake) cock that had been placed incorrectly.

It is said that fiction imitates reality - this tragedy, even after six decades seems to be as shrouded in mystery as Alfred Hitchcock novels are.

In an article in The Gleaner's Pieces of the Past, hundreds of members of the Holy Name Society of St Anne's Roman Catholic Church were travelling in the train under the guidance of their pastor, the Reverend Father Charles Earle.

There were, also, close to 100 known criminals, hooligans and pickpockets in the train.

If the adage 'packed like can of sardines' were to be applied the limit for passengers in each coach was 80 ... but over 1500 people were in those 12 cars.

It is said that the criminals in the train were making a ruckus and a priest declared that the wrath of God had surely descended on them ... this prophecy, unfortunately, came true.

It was reported by some survivors that many of the hooligans had tampered with that angle cock while others said they had seen the wheel in question tightened in Montego Bay.

Author Beverly East penned a novel, 'Reaper of Souls' based on the Kendal train crash recounting the memories and tribute to her family members who were lost in the accident.

This tragedy touched the lives of thousands of Jamaicans, who lost family members, friends - and those who did not lose loved ones were left with the images and memories of mangled train coaches with limbs sticking out, and countless bodies laid out on the ground.

On September 1, Jamaica officially commemorates Kendal Train Crash day.

For the residents of Kendal, the screams and shrieks perhaps have never died down ... .