Fri | Jul 20, 2018

Tempers flare in wake of fatal fire

Published:Friday | January 20, 2017 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju
Over 50 persons were left homeless after fire destroyed an abandoned building, including a woodwork shop, that they occupied between Pechon and West streets in downtown Kingston, yesterday. An elderly woman perished in the blaze.

Tempers were blazing long after the fire, which claimed the life of an elderly woman and left more than 50 persons homeless, had been brought under control at 7-11 West Street in downtown Kingston yesterday.

Angry about the death of Ms Gloria, also known as 'Mama', former residents of the premises, which housed a furniture-making operation as well as tenement dwellings, openly vented their frustration, accusing firefighters and police personnel of thwarting their early efforts to bring the fire under control, which they said contributed to the elderly woman's demise.

"Mama lay dung round deh dead inna di sheet and we know we yard and we tell dem say, 'Mama up deh. Leave we mek we go find her cause we used to we yard and use to we doorway, so we know which part fi go. So leave we mek we go'. The bwoy dem go deh and seh 'Mama', and Mama seh, 'Mmmm', but Mama don't know where fi go because the smoke dark up the place," Latoya, one of the displaced residents, lamented.

Seated amid a pile of furniture strewn outside, she and others played over the morning's events, citing disrespect from at least two policemen, one of whom they identified by name. "The man dem a try save the lady and the police run dem out of the yard till the poor likkle old woman suffer from the smoke and dead right now," one person added.

32 firefighters respond

Superintendent Patrick Gooden of the Jamaica Fire Brigade said that they received the call about the fire at 11:03 a.m., and the first unit was on spot six minutes later, with police from the Western Kingston Division already on the scene. First responders immediately radioed for backup, with some 32 firefighters from Half-Way Tree, York Park, Rollington Town, and Trench Town fire stations converging on the blaze.

The senior firefighter confirmed that residents offered to assist and they did accept advice in terms of where Mama was likely to be found. However, by the time they were able to reach her, the elderly woman had already succumbed.

"We would have asked some questions as to where the lady was located, (and) they provided us with some information. However, from all indications, she would have moved from that location because it seems that she would have been seeking relief from the smoke, and so when we went where they told us it is possible to find her, she was not at that location," Gooden explained.

One man, who claimed to have lived at the premises from which the now defunct Jamaica Record newspaper operated, openly hurled abuse at the firefighters and the police but took time out to tell journalists about his attempt to rescue Ms Gloria.

"Mi draw off the window and smoke a come out pon me so I couldn't save har. I swear to God (because) me can't see har. I cry the living yeye water. The fireman dem cause it because we tell dem seh make the water go to the second floor. Spray the water before the fire ketch up deh. Him say him naw tek nuh talk from nobody. Mi nuh save nutten," the man explained.

The fire victims insist that with their knowledge of the premises, they could have provided invaluable assistance, if allowed to go inside with the firefighters and police. They told The Gleaner that upon realising that the fire, which, reportedly, started in the furniture shop, was spreading, they immediately grabbed buckets and other containers, filling them with water as they attempted to douse the fire. When it became apparent that these efforts were failing, they then resorted to salvaging furniture and other personal items.

"Dem a run out the people dem out of dem yard and dem don't know the yard. The fireman dem don't know where to go inna the yard. The (police) man hold the man dem wid the water a put dem through the gate, water with bucket. One police all a draw baton fi lick mi grandson after him a try help," one woman recounted.

Deputy Superintendent of Police Alfred McDonald, operations officer for the Western Kingston Division, told journalists that his team, which arrived minutes before the firefighters, did facilitate persons engaged in salvaging their belongings. However, he said this had to be balanced against the risk to their lives, denying that the police were less than helpful.

"No, those allegations are not true. When we arrived on the scene, there were two sets of persons converged on the location. Persons who actually lived inside the premises who wanted a chance to salvage what they could. Those persons, we allowed them to salvage what they could. The other set of persons, they were just looking, so we dispersed those persons to give the firefighters a chance to carry out their operations," he explained.