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Kendal crash: 60 years later

Published:Thursday | August 31, 2017 | 12:00 AMBarbara Ellington
The Kendal Crash.
The blessing of the graves of unidentified victims of the 1957 Kendal train crash at the memorial service held beside the railway lines.

Renowned author and graphologist Beverly East was 19 when she heard hushed whispers about the disastrous Kendal Crash. Though her dad was living at home with the family, so grief-stricken was he by the event, he hardly spoke about it. Young Beverly only learned about it after a cousin who had come to reside with them told the sad tale.

The Kendal Crash, which happened on Sunday, September 1, 1957, was said to be the second worst of its kind in the world at the time. It changed the lives of the East family, a close-knit bunch brought even closer together as 14 members of their family lost their lives that night.

Some 200 passengers died and 700 more received injuries in the crash that is forever etched in Jamaica's memory.

"My (paternal) grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all died that night, so the anniversary observation is my way of honouring them and the other souls that perished that night," East told The Gleaner.

Her authorship of the book titled Reaper of Souls did not bring closure for her family, but it helped to inform others who were unaware of the Kendal Crash.

"They say time heals all wounds, but in this instance, it hasn't. I sometimes feel like I am digging up old wounds," the author said.

East does not think enough has been done in Jamaica to commemorate the tragedy annually. She also feels a sense of disappointment, so much so that if she doesn't personally rally around it, it will be totally forgotten or overshadowed by other news events. She would love to see a monument erected at the crash site as a permanent reminder and memorial to the lost souls.

"But it's a matter of raising the funds to make it happen. I had planned to start a fundraiser for that purpose this year, but I lost my mother, so maybe next year. I need others to be involved," she said.

Ghost sightings

For many years after that fateful day 60 years ago, whenever Jamaicans spoke about the Kendal Crash, they would repeat ghost sightings in folklore-like fashion. There were tall tales of cab drivers who had been fooled into taking a passenger to an address and waiting outside for the fare, only to be told by a relative that no one had entered the house.

Other tales were more far-fetched, like that of a woman who was seen searching among the bodies immediately after the crash. She suddenly burst into loud bawling with declarations that she had found her husband. Desperately clutching what was said to be a male sex organ, she was asked how she knew it was her husband's. She replied, "Who feels it, knows it."

Survivors speak

For Jean Giscombe and Irvin Campbell, the events of September 1, 1957 were no laughing matter at all. Aged 10 and 16, respectively, they were on the train bound for a church excursion that never happened, but today, they consider themselves lucky to be alive.

Giscombe's friends on the church trip that Sunday numbered 10, six of whom died in the crash. "I am lucky to be alive," Giscombe said as she recounted how she started out in one of the front coaches.

"The crash happened in the night during the return journey. My grandfather had told us not to sit in the front coach, and four of us obeyed him, but, ironically, he left us in the back and went to have a drink up front with his friends. We never saw him again," Giscombe said.

It seems like the gods were on Giscombe's side that night. Having gone to one of the rear coaches, she occupied a window seat, but the woman beside her requested the seat. She, too, perished.

Giscombe slept through the ordeal, so she did not hear a thing. She only awoke to realise that she was outside. Confused, she thought she was back at home in Kingston, but she saw people on the ground and heard crying. She decided to search for her grandpa, but only saw her grandma with some men around her.

"She was wearing white and it was bloody and dirty. I also saw a cousin of mine named Pepsi. He said he had escaped after several objects had fallen on top of him. My grandma lost an ear and got a cut on her head, but I was unscathed," Giscombe said.

Six of Giscombe's family members went over the precipice in the coach and their bodies have never been recovered. The memory of the crash is the only one she has retained from her 10th year, but, thankfully, Giscombe has not been plagued by nightmares. She is only scared to travel far distances and has never been back on a passenger train since that day.

With no cell phones or electric light in 1957, they got light from vehicles that came and from the crowd that brought torches. Giscombe and other survivors returned to Kingston the following Tuesday via a banana train. Many survivors were taken to Spaldings and Mandeville hospitals.

"I would like to see a permanent memorial erected at the crash site. I only went there once when they marked the 50th anniversary of the crash," she said.

Tampered brakes?

Now 76, the then 16-year-old Irvin Campbell was also on the train headed to Kingston from Montego Bay when it kept its date with destiny at that fateful stop in Kendal, Manchester.

Campbell recalls being asleep in the seventh coach, but losing his seat to some boys who wanted to save it for the girls.

"I went to the 11th coach and it was the one that ran offline and up on a hill, thus saving the others. I later heard that the brakes had been tampered with, but have no proof," Campbell said.

One of his friends from the earlier coach showed up later with his foot badly damaged. "It was a very dark night, so we could not see much. Some people lit fires, ambulances came for the survivors. In the morning, the place looked like a war zone. I saw only the last two coaches intact," Campbell said as he relived the memories.

Campbell said he offered assistance to his friend with the badly hurt leg because he was in a lot of pain. He recalls seeing many people coming to look at the crash site the next day. Throughout the night, there were constant moans and groans.

Unlike Giscombe, Campbell has travelled on trains both in Jamaica and overseas since that time. He says at 16, young men do not have much fear, so that incident did not bother him. There have been no nightmares. He is looking forward to seeing other survivors at the 60th anniversary church service at St Annie's Catholic Church on Sunday.