May 20: On this day in Jamaican history, the Eventide tragedy claims 144 lives

Among the many events that marked the 1980 general elections in Jamaica, the arson that claimed the lives of 144 women at the Eventide Home for the Aged changed the country forever. (Photo: Rodney Campbell, WordPress.com)

It was an act of cruelty that brought the already violence-torn Kingston to its knees, shook the island to the core and made international headlines 40 years ago.

Eventide Home for the Aged was forever changed when 144 elderly and infirmed women were killed in a fire at the institution on May 20, 1980. Eventide was home to some 700 Jamaicans at the time.

Residents of Slipe Pen Road awoke heartbroken that fateful Tuesday morning, as the Myers Ward of the Eventide Home was reduced to “metal rods, zinc sheets and ashes”.

The old, wooden building, erected to house the poor for more than 100 years, yielded to the unforgiving fire set by arsonists; of the 211 women living at the ward, only 58 escaped alive.

Another two women died from the severe burn injuries they received at the Kingston Public Hospital, seven were missing and presumed dead.

An article, archived by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, recalled it took firefighters from the capital and neighbouring parish of St Andrew to tame the deadly inferno.

“The loss caused by the fire was estimated at J$150,000. The Government agency responsible for the upkeep of the home, the Kingston and Saint Andrew Corporation (KSAC), announced that whether Eventide was repaired or rebuilt at a new location it would be costly to the Government,” the JNHT wrote.

Etched in the consciousness of a nation, each ‘token’ represents a life lost in a fire yet-to-be-solved at Eventide Monument in National Heroes Park. (Photo: Alexis Goffe from Twitter, @LexGoffe)

Forty years later, and the investigation is still no closer to unearthing those responsible for the atrocity.

However, as the island was being consumed by the mayhem that was the 1980 general election political campaign, conspiracies ran rife and untamed that the tragedy was deeply rooted in tribalism.

“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. Moreover, gunmen besieged the premises of the home just six months after the fire and this time injured two persons,” the historical article continued.

The Eventide Monument at National Heroes Park in Kingston. (Photo: Alexis Goffe from Twitter, @LexGoffe)

The conspiracies didn’t stop in Jamaica either, from allegations of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) involvement to the Reichstag, the heated political landscape quickly overshadowed the disaster.

The victims were buried in a mass grave and a memorial constructed in their honour at the National Heroes Park in Kingston.

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