A few weeks ago on September 1, I made a pilgrimage to Kendal in Manchester. On that date 50 years ago and on that spot, the worst train crash in Jamaica's history took place; at least 171 people were killed and more than 700 were injured; at the time it was the second-worst train crash in world history!
There is a slight personal connection. St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church on Percy Street in Kingston (walking distance from the railway station) had rented the train for an excursion to Montego Bay; it was extra long, with 12 coaches pulled by two engines; hundreds of church members went along, including many people I know. The trip was led by the parish priest, Fr. Charles Eberle SJ, an American, assisted by Fr. Harry Mallette SJ, a Jamaican. A member of the St. Anne's Catholic youth club, one Kenneth Mock Yen, travelled in the same compartment as those clergymen, and was responsible for selling the ice cream on the train.
A good time was had by all in Montego Bay; but on the way back a large number of hooligans hopped on to the private train to get a free ride to Kingston. When they saw what was happening, the church protested, but the train staff were unable to prevent them from bumming a ride, and the overloaded train proceeded on its way with more than 1,600 persons on board.
It was a nightmare, I am told. The hooligans harassed the church members, robbed a few and there are allegations that even rape occurred. Several persons abandoned their compartments and moved into the cargo area of the train to get away from the hooligans, which may, in the end, have saved their lives.
Hooligans ran amok
There are allegations that the hooligans ran amok and actually damaged the train, and as the two engines pulled the 12 coaches up to Kendal (at 1,352 ft above sea level, Kendal is the second highest railway station in Jamaica), there was a great crash and the train derailed, coaches falling down an incline, some piling on top of others. Body parts were strewn everywhere! Fr. Eberle and Fr. Mallette had no holy oils, but they roamed through the wreckage praying with the living and the dead.
On the first of September last, my wife, Velia, and I walked to the crash site with Kenneth Mock Yen, now a Roman Catholic priest and prelate, and a few other survivors. The crash site is spread over a wide area as the train was quite long. We selected a spot on the railway track, cleared away the bush, and balanced a portable table which would be ou on the rails and ruined sleepers.
Dressed in matching lilac liturgical vestments, the priest assisted by the deacon led the small assembly of nine in celebrating a sacrificial meal with bread and wine - the Eucharist - a requiem in memory of the friends and relatives who had died there, some buried nearby - in whole or in part - in a mass grave.
Velia was the cantor and led the singing; there was hardly a dry eye. Msgr. Mock Yen reminded us that our cameraman for the day was present on the train with his pregnant wife; they both survived, and they gave their son born a few months later the nickname 'Lucky' for obvious reasons. Later, the son joined the United States military, and returned from battle in the First Gulf War unscathed. He is now nicknamed 'Double Lucky'.
I understand that a monument has now been erected at the site. I am happy because I do not believe that we should ever forget tragedies like the Kendal Crash. We should not wait until the 75th anniversary for another memorial mass to be celebrated.
And by the way, does anyone remember Jamaica's second most serious railway accident, where a train with over 300 passengers derailed piling the five coaches on top of one another, killing 35 people and seriously injuring 56? Its 70th anniversary comes up next year.
Peter Espeut is a Roman Catholic deacon and an antiquarian.