… Then there was a mightyBOOM!
Alessandro Boyd, Gleaner Writer
This Christmas Eve will mark the 27th anniversary of a catastrophic event - the explosion of a gas cylinder which ripped through a section of Half-Way Tree, St Andrew, leaving five dead and 20 injured.
With the festive season upon us, some are still plagued by horrific memories, but 64-year-old Anthony Baker, a survivor of the blast who lost his left hand and left leg, has since moved on. He is grateful there's still life.
It was December 24, 1985, an ordinary Christmas Eve in Half-Way Tree. The atmosphere was engulfed by the spirit of joy and cheer. Baker, a vendor, sat by his stall in front of Premier Plaza, peddling leather slippers he had crafted.
"I was looking to close in on my sales and return to my family in time for Christmas," he recalled.
But things changed. Tragedy struck. About 15 metres from his stall, three men were using a cylinder to fill balloons with helium - or so they claimed. They were selling to passers-by.
"The cylinder started to get hot and people start fi shout an' tell dem fi move wid it. Same time, Beenie start ketch water in a bottle and throw it pon di cylinder fi cool it down. Nuff steam start blow off but them continue same way," Baker said.
The pressure built up and the cylinder exploded.
"Boooom!" Baker exclaimed, as he raised the stump of his left hand. "That alone mi hear."
He added: "Then mi jus find miself ice up. Is like mi freeze. Mi hear the noise and when mi hear it, you know, my mind tell mi that it was the cylinder blow up."
The explosion occurred about 6:30 p.m. It triggered an uproar that could be heard within a three-mile radius, leaving extensive damage to the buildings and motor vehicles.
"Mi deh deh an cyaa see nutten roun me, cyaa hear nuh sound - nothing at all. Is like is me alone. Den mi start hear one likkle sound like you know the whistle from the peanut cart dem (screeching)? Den mi hearing take time come in. It was like the sound a come closer," Baker recalled.
"Then mi jus start hear people a shout. When mi look up, all mi see was a white light. I saw no stalls on the sidewalk again. Everything did just mash down."
Baker recalled hearing nothing but screams of anguish and cries for help.
"I started to hear people a bawl out. Mi look and see a lady name Gwenny that used to sell, too. So mi seh, 'Gwenny, come help mi!' and mi lift up mi hand, but when mi look, mi nuh see nuh hand! So mi seh, 'Wa dis?'," as he gestured and raised the stump of his left hand once again.
"Gwenny hold her head now and turn back and say she mash up an cyaa help me. So now mi a try stand up, yuh see. When mi look, no foot! So mi start cry out now. Mi did frighten. It did terrible. If people nuh dead, dem mash up. Mi all have a bredren weh split inna two - him head fly gone."
Paramedics rushed to the scene of the tragedy and sped the injured to the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) and the University Hospital of the West Indies. Baker was taken to KPH for treatment.
EXPLODED IN CROWD
According to Gleaner reports on the incident, the cylinder used to inflate the gas balloons exploded in a crowd of shoppers along Constant Spring Road in St Andrew. Eyewitness reports also claimed that instead of the helium normally used to fill balloons, the gas used was a synthesis of the gases produced by the chemical reaction of hydrochloric acid and zinc.
"The first two weeks were really bad. Is just true mi a consider mi two last children. One was four and the other two. It did rough, because mi jus a wonder how dem a go manage 'cause di mother never did a work, so you know say a mi a di breadwinner, an mi cyaa work now," Baker lamented.
"The kids did also kinda traumatised. When dem see me, dem a say, 'Daddy, wah happen to yuh? Yuh nuh have nuh foot or hand. Daddy wah happen to yuh?! And mi jus affi say, 'Come, man. Everything a go alright," he added.
Time passed and the memories of the explosion remained with Baker, especially during the annual Christmas season. The impact these days is not severe, though.
"I decided not to let it affect me any longer. Mi see wah mi did affi deal wid, so mi jus start pree wah mi affi live wid and how mi a go live wid it. So mi jus decide fi move on," he said.
Baker's chances of being employed dwindled following the blast, however, as many thought it difficult to hire a man with only one hand and one foot. His slippers venture also plummeted into the shadows as he was unable to make them due to his disability.
"No one nah employ mi. If mi get up an' sick, (it) is a task just for transportation. Mi need some help right ya now still. All mi eye a get bad. All it comes down to is the struggle, but mi affi give thanks fi life same way and try a t'ing," he said.
Baker has since requested help from the Portmore Self-Help Disability Organisation, where he now sells tickets at the Portmore Pines Plaza. He receives a commission on sales.
He also provided words of encouragement for other survivors of the blast who might still be haunted by the memories.
"It done happen already. It's been a long time, too, so it nuh mek sense worry over it or how it may have changed your life. If yuh goin' worry about it, then it will cause problems for you. It is a thing of the past, so put it aside and look forward to your future," he said.