Today in Jamaican history: Kendal train wreck claims 187 lives

Jamaicans stood in disbelief, sadness and grief watching the wreckage of a train bound for Kingston laid bare in Kendal, Manchester in 1957. (Photo: Jamaicans.com)

It was a moment forever etched into the consciousness of a nation, when 63 years ago, on Sunday, September 1, 1957, the Kendal train wreck became the worst transport tragedy in Jamaica’s modern history.

For many reasons, it’s a day many Jamaicans would never forget as the island, on the cusp of independence, ushered in the last weekend of summer 1957.

Like other days, it was a sunny Saturday, August 31, as hundreds of Jamaicans descended onto the Kingston Railway Station downtown, ahead of an all-day excursion to Montego Bay. The expedition, led by Rev. Father Charles Eberle, was for parishioners at the Holy Name Society of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, according to archives from the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ).

The widely publicised trip went ahead without glitches; however, it was on the return trip that catastrophe struck.

En route back to Kingston, the overladen wooden train – with 12 coaches in tow and some 1,600 people on board – met into difficulties on its approach to the sleeping town of Kendal, Manchester.

A diesel-powered engine chugged past Bernard Lodge in St Catherine (Photo: National Library of Jamaica)

The trains, managed by the Jamaica Government Railway, were kept in poor condition. There were two faults at root of the crash: a closure of an angled wheel (brake) cock, and overcrowding.

The ill-fated train was doomed from the moment it left Montego Bay.

“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,” the NLJ worte.

Several thunderous crashes echoed into the night, peppered with the screams and cries of those injured, as the passenger cars all came loose from the engine. The now-derailed coaches tumbled haplessly into the gully in a pile on the side of the track.

The Sunday morning dawned on a horrific scene: dozens of Jamaican bodies lay strewn across the Manchester 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,” the NLJ further wrote.

In the days following the accident, survivors combed through the wreckage calling out for their loved ones—the stench of death and suffering filled the air, as Jamaica mourned.

An aerial view of the Kendal train wreck in 1957 (Photo: National Library of Jamaica)

The official death toll was reported at 187, but the situation for the 700 that lived through the Kendal train crash grew direr still as hospitals at Spauldings and May Pen were filled to overflowing. Overwhelmed medical staff made appeals for volunteers and blood donations from the public.

“Many [dead] 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,” the NLJ indicated.

Amid allegations the train had been tampered with, an all-encompassing Railway Commission of Enquiry was called, which placed the blame solely at the feet of bad governance.

Still, despite the findings of the enquiry, research shows that it was the overcrowding of the coaches that had the greatest impact on the widespread carnage at Kendal.

A true account of the death toll was fiercely disputed as in some areas, the wreckage was so extreme, people were buried under tons of wood and metal. Wheels in the air, this coach from the Kendal crash all but killed its occupants. In the far left of the picture, rescue workers taking one of the dead out of the rubble. (Photo: National Library of Jamaica)

“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,” the NLJ remarked further.

The disaster was the beginning of the end of Jamaica’s trust in the railway network, and public confidence dropped considerably, even as all wooden coaches were replaced with studier metal fittings.