Remembering the Vaughansfield fire … 70 years later
Adrian Frater, News Editor
Western Bureau:While a planned mem-orial ceremony has been cancelled, today will nonetheless be marked with sadness by residents of Vaughansfield in St James, as they remember a fire which destroyed the community's elementary school and left seven students dead 70 years ago.
"It was shortly after midday going into the evening," recalled 83-year-old May Edwards, who was a 13-year-old student at the makeshift Vaughansfield Elementary School at the time.
"The skies darkened and rain began to fall … suddenly there was a bolt of lightning and the mission house, which was school to the smaller children, caught fire … seven students died that day... seven boys."
The incident was captured on the pages of The Gleaner under the headline, 'Lightning Kills Seven Children; Injures Scores; Sets School On Fire'.
The report detailed the horrifying circumstance under which Alphonso Clarke, Benjamin James, Ira Vernon, Obediah Thomas, Owen Bowen, Wesley Grissle, and William Bond perished.
"The boys who died were younger than I was, but I still remember them, especially the Bond boy," said Edwards.
"I remember him well because he use to live on Pimento Hill … it was a terrible day .... a day I will never forget."
In recalling the mass confusion which unfolded as fire ravished the makeshift school, Edward said the situation was simply horrifying at best.
"Those were the darks days ... there was no electric light ... residents came out with their bottle torches, but all they could do was look on," the elderly woman recalled of the rescue effort which continued into the night.
Edwards, who was just returning home from her farm when The Sunday Gleaner's team visited her Vaughansfield home, had a somewhat wry smile as she told of a female teacher 'Chisholm', who did not remember she had ridden a mule to school as confusion reigned.
"Teacher Chisholm live in an adjoining district and she use to ride a mule to school," said Edwards.
"When the fire broke out, she forgot about the mule and she ran around the community announcing that the school was on fire."
Robert Burns, who now lives in England, was one of the students who survived the blaze.
He still has memories of those classmates who did not make it and the heroics of principal, Stanley Scott, who went in and out of the raging fire several times, rescuing students who were trapped inside the blazing building.
"That event was the largest disaster to hit Jamaica prior to that date," stated Burns, in a recent letter he wrote to Governor General Sir Patrick Allen inviting his participation in the memorial ceremony.
Burns subsequently called off the memorial service because of poor health.
"One hundred and seventy five of us survived, but seven boys did not make it," lamented Burns, who recently wrote a book detailing his childhood memory of the gruesome incident.
He hopes the book will help to immortalise the memories of the seven students who died that afternoon.
Burns, who was throwing his all behind the memorial service before illness derailed his plans, had actually written a letter to Queen Elizabeth, who had visited the re-built school when she came to Jamaica in the 1950s.
He had requested a message of sympathy from her, which he had hoped to read at the ceremony.
In her response to Burns' letter, the queen thanked him for his effort to immortalise the tragedy and provided him with the requested letter of sympathy.
"I feel sure that it will be a moving occasion, bringing back many memories to those who are able to attend, evoking poignant recollections of the seven children who lost their lives so long ago," the message said.
While the death of his seven classmates will remain forever etched in his mind and his book, which he is hoping to distribute locally, Burns, who was seven years old at the time of the fire, still has glowing recollections of the heroics of Principal Scott.
"Many children were wounded and many more would have died were it not for the bravery and heroic action of my headmaster (Stanley Scott), who rushed into the burning building and rescued all the children who were unable to escape by themselves ... he even managed to remove the bodies of the dead children," said Burns.
Scott, who subsequently became the first independent member of parliament in Jamaica, received a citation from Buckingham Palace for his bravery.
With a new school, sporting lightning rods, now up and running in close proximity to where the old school burnt 70 years ago, Scott and the surviving students have become major cornerstone of the institution, regularly providing the school with teaching aids and other material to assist the children.
"Seventy years is a long time ago, but in my mind it is just like it was the other day," said Edwards.
"What happened is not something those who saw it can easily forget … I still think about the boys who perished all the time and wonder what they would have made of their lives if they had lived."