Fire claims 5, 10 in hospital as fire destroys sections of Armadale Juvenile Centre
Published: Sunday | May 24, 2009
Prime Minister Bruce Golding comforts one of the inmates of the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in St Ann, where five girls were burnt to death and 13 others injured in a fire which almost destroyed the home Friday night. Golding flew down to the village yesterday morning to get a first-hand view of the incident, shortly before leaving the island for a special CARICOM meeting in Trinidad. - Contributed
Some say the rains broke too soon and could have helped put out the fire. Some say it might not have made a difference. In the end, it never really mattered.
The parish of St Ann was thrown into a state of shock Saturday as residents awoke to the news that five teenagers, wards of the state, perished in a fire that engulfed a section of the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in Alexandria, Friday night.
Ten others suffered burns and were rushed to the St Ann's Bay Hospital; one was later transferred to the Kingston Public Hospital in critical condition.
Three of the victims were 17 years old and two were aged 15 years.
"She's trembling like a leaf in there right now."
With bloodshot eyes and overflowing grief in his voice, Ransford Gibbs struggled to come to grips with the horrific situation that could've ended his daughter's life.
"A St Mary mi a come from. Mi first reaction was fi call the place and every time me call the place them nah answer, so the only thing me haffi do a sell out the whole a mi jewellery dem affa mi finga and reach up yah," Gibbs stated, explaining how he responded to the news.
Ransford Gibbs, father of one girls at the centre, holds up pieces of embroidery given to him by his daughter, when he visited her yesterday. - Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer
Prime Minister Bruce Golding, along with other officials, including Security Minister Dwight Neslon, Police Commissioner Hardley Lewin and member of parliament for South West St Ann, Ernest Smith, toured the facility early Saturday.
The Prime Minister ordered the facility closed immediately, express-ing shock at its deplorable condition.
Golding also ordered an enquiry into what caused the blaze and named retired Justice Paul Harrison to lead the commission of enquiry.
About 1 p.m. Saturday, two Toyota Coaster buses arrived at the location to remove the girls to the Stony Hill Heart Academy where they will remain until repairs to Armadale are completed.
It is unclear what caused the fire but reports are that the blaze started even while the police were on the scene quelling a disturbance which broke out earlier among the girls at the facility.
The police were summoned about 7 p.m. It is alleged the police were attacked with stones by the teens on their approach.
It is further alleged that tear gas was used to try and keep the girls in order. Later, it was discovered that a section of the building that housed 23 of the 61 young women at the institution, was on fire.
It is believed the fire was started by some of the rebellious teens.
The fire quickly spread to engulf a section of the building, trapping some of the girls.
Efforts by the lawmen to rescue them were met with partial success, as they managed to drag several of the girls through barricaded windows.
However, five of them were unable to escape. Their charred remains were discovered after a unit from the Brown's Town Fire Station had put out the blaze.
The hellish incident is the culmination of increasingly unruly behaviour by the girls at Armadale, stretching back over the past year or so, where the police have been called in to quell disturbances or to apprehend escapees.
Tears flowed freely from parents, family members and friends of the victims, who arrived on the scene in the course of the day.
The traumatic effect of the incident on his daughter, Gibb's showed, was evidenced by how she seemed to have immediately lost all zeal for sewing and embroidery - a thing which she deeply loved.
"Si all har tread dem yah" he said as he took a small bag of coloured thread from the garbage bag in his hand.
"She seh 'Daddy, me not even waan see me tread them again - not even waan see me tread them again!"
Some persons cursed and blamed the authorities for the incident.
But at least one man, Carlton Day, appeared sympathetic towards the authorities.
"Some persons don't understand what entails at an institution such as this so they pass all sort of remarks and blame the staff, but in a way, all of us are to blame because they (the girls) are coming from our society. But it's really, really heart-rending," Day said.
Family members barred
The traumatic situation was not made any better when family members of victims were barred, like everyone else, from entering the premises by personnel at the gate. One woman from Kingston, Loretta Williams, whose 15-year-old daughter perished in the fire, collapsed to the ground as soon as she stepped out of the bus that brought her and family members there.
"A just four or five months ago dem bring har ere from Maxfield Park," one relative said of the teen who had perished.
Children's Advocate, Mary Clarke, who herself was given a hard time before being allowed on the compound, assisted family members in comforting the weeping mother.
Clarke later told The Sunday Gleaner: "It's a sad day in Jamaica, it's a tragedy to think that five young lives have been snuffed out in this manner. I am really, deeply moved. I've seen some of the girls and they look totally traumatised. The deepest sympathies go out to the families of the victims."
Respond to the crisis
Clarke commended the Depart-ment of Correctional Services (DSC) whose response to the incident she described as encouraging. According to Clarke, the DCS was swift to respond to the crisis and brought in counsellors, psychiatrists and psychologists Friday night to assist the girls.
But even while the professionals, the police, staff members and family members were present, loud expletives were heard coming from an area where the girls were being housed.
Minutes later, one of the girls made a dash for the fence surrounding the residence and headed for the water tank but swift action by staff members restrained her and prevented her from jumping in.
Meanwhile, member of parlia-ment for South West St Ann, Ernest Smith, described the incident as a "tremendous tragedy".
"Irrespective of why the girls were in the home, the fact of the matter is that Jamaica has lost five of our daughters. They could have become lawyers or doctors, who knows, maybe even prime minister. We mourn their deaths and we're hoping such an incident never happens again. We're hoping whatever the causes may have been, we will ensure the appropriate remedial action will be taken. It is a very sad day, not only in the life of the constituency of South West St Ann but a very sad day in the country's history," Smith said.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the juvenile.