Forty years ago, May 20, 1980, fire at the Eventide Home in Jamaica claimed the lives of over 140 destitute and elderly women.
During a coroner’s jury on May 5, 1981 for just over 15 minutes, the deliberations resulted in no one being criminally responsible for the deaths of the senior citizens.
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.
Based on The Gleaner reports, “arson was involved and was impossible to rule out the likelihood that the initial ignition could have been a deliberate act” England’s Deputy Director of the Home Office’s Central Research Establishment Kenneth Jones said in a report to the Inquest. Also, then Justice Minister Carl Rattray reprimanded British diplomat in Jamaica John Drinkall, for disclosing details of the Jones’ Report.
A 2012 report prepared by a team led by expert on ageing, Professor Denise Eldemire-Shearer, called for “mainstreaming ageing into all national policies and programmes”. The interventions, the researchers said, would “promote functional independence and improved quality of the increased years of life”.
In 2018, the Government tabled in Parliament a proposed senior citizen policy, 20 years after the first policy was put forward. The discussion paper said there were 1,031 people residing in 13 residential institutions across the country, a number likely higher now. It also spoke to operationalising the principles of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.
Forty years later and the investigation is still no closer to unearthing those responsible for the atrocity.
The victims were buried in a mass grave and a memorial constructed in their honour at the National Heroes Park in Kingston.