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Eventide fire remembered

Torrington Park marks anniversary with demand for an end to political rivalry

BY COREY ROBINSON Observer staff reporter robinsonc@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, May 23, 2011    

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RESIDENTS of Torrington Park in Kingston on Friday staged a march calling for an end to political rivalry, which they said was at the heart of the May 20, 1980 Eventide Home fire which resulted in the deaths of more than 153 elderly women.

The residents, paying homage to the victims on the 31st anniversary of the fire that shocked the country, paraded in the community in the scorching heat of the noonday sun, carrying unlit candles as a symbol of the torture the women must have endured as they succumbed to the flames and smoke.

"We are remembering those victims, and we are trying to get people to break away from that socio-political link," said Itana Henry, public relations officer for the Torrington Park Action Youth Club.

"The fire started because of political thuggery and we are saying that we need to break away from that," said Henry.

The cause of the blaze was never officially determined. However, there were several reports that it was the result of arson sparked by political hostilities.

The Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) website notes that: "One opinion on the cause of the fire argued that it was the result of political manoeuvring during the final months leading up to the most violent general elections in Jamaica's recent history.

"There were, in fact, a number of reports to the police from persons living at the home that gunmen had entered the premises more than once, claiming they had come to kill the staff and inmates for reasons connected with their alleged political affiliations," the website also notes.

Gunmen also besieged the home just six months after the fire and injured two persons.

All 153 victims of the fire were permanent residents on Myers Ward — an old wooden building constructed during the late 19th century.

After the fire was extinguished, 144 charred bodies were found beneath the rubble.

Days later, two other women who were badly burnt succumbed to their injuries at the Kingston Public Hospital.

Only 58 persons escaped the inferno on Myers Ward, which 211 elderly women called home at the time. The other nine remained missing and were eventually presumed dead, the website said.

The incident sparked nationwide condemnation, so much so that then-Prime Minister Michael Manley declared May 26, 1980 — the day the victims were buried in a mass grave inside the National Heroes Park — a day of national mourning.

The Eventide Home was originally built in 1870 to house elderly women, but expanded to accommodate destitute, crippled, and disabled elderly men.

A representative from the nearby Golden Age Home in Vineyard Town, where the residents of the Eventide Home were relocated, said the last direct survivor, one Joyce Thompson, died about two years ago. She was in her late 70s, the representative said.

"She was directly involved; she escaped from the ward that was burning," said the representative. "And she would always tell us the story of what happened. She would also show us the burn marks on her feet and hands."

George Pinto, who is in his late 60s, another resident relocated from Eventide to the Golden Age Home, recalled the blaze which he said killed his friend, 'Herma'.

"I was sleeping when the fire started and somebody shouted out 'fire!' and I woke up. I was upstairs over by the male ward and when I looked out I was just in time to see the three walls (of Myers Ward) collapse in a heap of fire," Pinto said, noting that the female compound was located on a separate section of the premises from that of the males.

He said the building collapsed quickly because of its decaying structure.

"Our ward and the children's ward were concrete, but the rest of wards, those over the female compound, were board," he explained. "Concrete was only out on the veranda, but the rest of it was board. It was made out of them old-time lumber."

Pinto said there was nothing he could do to assist the victims as the fire had already blazed out of control by the time he was awakened.

According to Henry, Friday's march was a part of plans to rebuild and uplift the Torrington Park community. He said other initiatives included the removal of the images of politicians and replacing them with paintings of "role models".

Henry cited reggae artiste Konshens, and Miss Jamaica World 2005 Terri Karrelle-Griffith, who both participated in the march, as examples.

"We are talking about removing the red, the green, the orange, the 'Gully' and the 'Gaza', all of those we are planning to remove and put neutral images that reflect positivity," he said.

Joan Jonas, a consultant from Youth Development Options Limited, the organisation which manages the Youth Upliftment Through Employment (YUTE) programme, also participated in the march.

The YUTE programme targets at-risk youths in eight inner-city communities, inclusive of Torrington Park, Mountain View, Denham Town and Tivoli Gardens.

Jonas applauded the initiative, saying: "It is good to remember what happened and to make sure that something like that never happens again. It also shows that we must be conscious about what is happening around us and in our society."

Regional co-ordinator at the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) Sophia Mitchell, represented the agency at the march.

She described the Eventide fire as a major part of the country's history, which all Jamaicans should pay attention to.

"ODPEM has to recognise and commemorate this anniversary because it is a reminder of one of the major occurrences in our history which impacted on the elderly," she said, adding that the ODPEM has been working with various communities to educate persons on how to better take care of elderly persons in emergencies.

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