Lives Derailed: On the 60th Anniversary of the Kendal Train Crash - The National Library of Jamaica

Lives Derailed: On the 60th Anniversary of the Kendal Train Crash

 

 

In 1957, Norman Manley was Chief Minister, Alfred Hitchcock’s new thriller, Vertigo, had recently premiered at the Carib Cinema, and Radio Jamaica and Rediffusion filled the airwaves with programmes such as ‘Talent Parade’ and Alma Mock-Yen’s ‘Tea Time’.

It was the final weekend of summer and the parishioners of the Holy Name Society of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Kingston, led by the Rev. Father Charles Eberle, were busy making preparations for an all-day excursion to Montego Bay. The trip had been widely publicised throughout the city and hundreds had planned to make the journey.

 

I was planning for it months ahead and don’t ask if a didn’t spend money! I bought new everything because I wanted to go on the trip brand new…” 

(Kendal Crash Survivor, Dorrel Dobson, in an interview with The Star , September 5, 1982, p. 12)

On Sunday morning, September 1, 1957, the platform at the Kingston Railway Station was abuzz with would-be travellers eager to secure a coveted seat on the diesel-hauled train readying for departure. The trip to Montego Bay was a smooth one. Rev. Father Charles Eberle made his way through the coaches conducting mass with his excited congregants.

The return trip to Kingston, however, would never reach its destination.

 

 

After a day of fun in the second city, weary travellers piled into the 12 wooden passenger coaches. The numbers had increased significantly. At 130-150 passengers in each coach – well over the train’s capacity of 80 persons per car – the train bore the weight of 1,600 souls.

Barrelling through the night at full-speed over rough terrain, the rattling locomotive approached a bend in the rails near the town of Kendal, Manchester. At around 11:10pm, several hundred yards from the main road to Balaclava, three train whistle blasts signalled disaster – the driver had lost control of the train.

 

“I then shouted to the observer Theophilus James who was beside me. ‘We dead now; we dead now.’ I prepared myself for death and made three blasts of the whistle to warn those behind that something was wrong.”

 

(Train conductor, Garnish Lurch, in an article for, The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, September 3, 1957, p. 1)

 

A Page from The Star, September 2, 1957

The passenger cars came loose from the engine and the derailed coaches toppled into the gully to the side of the tracks in a pile.

 

Two were reduced literally to match-wood, while others were gutted or had sides torn out…One coach, with everything but the floor torn away remained on the rails and kept on running for about a quarter of a mile…” (The Star , September 2, 1957, p.1).

 

The morning dawned on a grizzly scene of bodies strewn across the countryside. Some had died on impact, while many were critically injured – impaled by the twisted metal and wooden fragments. There are many heart wrenching accounts of survivors searching for their loved ones among the carnage while looters brazenly stole the possessions of the dead and dying.

 

 

“Men moved among the dead and the dying, plundering and searching for what they could get.”

(The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, September 3, 1957, p. 1)

 

 

The cover of the Daily Gleaner reporting the Kendal Train Crash (September 3, 1957)

“The remaining coaches were an utter shambles, with dead and injured inside and underneath them, survivors screaming, calling for help, or crying the names of relatives or friends.” 

(The Daily Gleaner, September 3, 1957)

Hospitals at Spauldings and May Pen were filled to overflowing as medical staff made appeals for volunteers and blood donations from the public.

 

“At Mandeville, all the bodies were laid out on a grassy knoll behind the Hospital, where lights were strung on wires from a couple of large trees to a small wooden building serving as an office and shelter. There, anxious relatives filed by all night, trying to identify someone dear to them.”

(The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, September 3, 1957, p. 1)

 

‘A young woman clutched her baby, choked and fell to the ground crying, “It can’t be true. My husband, he’s not dead. Where is he?” Bystanders took her away with the child.’

(The Daily Gleaner, September 3, 1957)

 

 

The Kendal Train Crash left 187 dead and 700 injured. Many were later buried in a mass grave near the crash site. The Friday of that week (September 8, 1957) was observed as a National Day of Mourning as world leaders sent messages of condolence and sympathy to the Jamaican people.

Through the ensuing Railway Commission of Enquiry, the cause of the crash was discovered to be the closure of an angled wheel (brake) cock. It was suggested the brakes had been tampered with. The Enquiry found many deficiencies in the Jamaica Government Railway and asserted that the trains had been kept in poor condition.

The Report submitted could not have been more blunt:

Mr. Magnus, the Acting General Manager, has shown by his conduct in procuring a false brake certificate, that he lacks the integrity which one must expect of an officer occupying that position…

 

Yet despite the findings of the Enquiry, research shows that it was the overcrowding of the coaches that played the greatest role in the extent of the carnage. Additional coaches had been added to accommodate the large numbers of passengers to whom the church had sold tickets. There were too many people aboard the train.

After the disaster at Kendal, all wooden coaches were replaced with sturdier metal ones. Still, public confidence in rail transport took a sharp decline.

The Kendal Train Crash was a national disaster that touched the lives of thousands of Jamaicans. The story of what happened at Kendal must never be forgotten.

* * *

 

The Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport recently announced that September 1 will be officially recognized as a day of commemoration for the Kendal Train Crash.

 

Don’t miss Lives Derailed: The 60th Anniversary of the Kendal Train Crash in Jamaica.  The exhibition also includes information on the development of the train system in Jamaica – which remained active for 150 years. Videos, photographs, and historical documents (some never before seen) make this an exhibition you don’t want to miss.

Lives Derailed will be on display at the National Library of Jamaica until the end of October 2017.

Were you or someone you know affected in some way by the Kendal Train Crash? Share the experience with us in the comments below?