Kingston, Jamaica, January 30, 2017 – The 1907 Earthquake Monument is among the starkest reminders of one of the most fateful days in Jamaica’s history. The towering structure sits on land at Bumper Hall in Greenwich Town, St. Andrew, where 501 unidentified victims of the quake, which occurred 110 years ago on January 14, were interred.
History recounts that they were among the over 1,000 persons who perished during the 6.5 magnitude earthquake at approximately 3:30 p.m. which, for 36 seconds, rocked the foundation of the growing Kingston metropolis. “Screams split the air. Within 10 to 20 seconds, a town of 446,000 had been rendered immobile,” one report recounts. Its devastating impact was superseded only by the 1692 earthquake which sank a significant portion of Port Royal, resulting in the survivors of that devastation resettling on the adjacent area of land across the harbour which is now Kingston.
The 1907 earthquake’s destruction was compounded by a fire which broke out, limiting rescue efforts by first responders searching for survivors and bodies amongst the rubble to which numerous buildings had been reduced. The fire, according to historians, swept an area bounded to the east by Mark Lane; north by South Parade; west along Orange Street; and south by the Caribbean Sea. Persons who were trapped by the rubble or otherwise unable to escape the flames perished. This, as the city was rendered helpless consequent on the destruction of the Jamaica Fire Brigade’s equipment and infrastructure, and broken water mains.
The next day, after the dust had settled and the smoke dissipated, over 1,000 persons lay dead either amidst the rubble or at the public hospital where numerous victims succumbed to injuries after being admitted. Half of the victims were found burnt and charred along the principal streets of the city, which was plunged into semi-darkness, with the overall damage estimated at £2 million (approximately $316 million). Survivors, whose homes or businesses were destroyed, sought refuge in parks or on the adjoining lawns of wrecked houses.
Among the victims were: Deputy Chairman of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company of London and Member of Parliament, Sir James Ferguson; importer and plantation owner, Edgar deCordova; Head of the West India Regiment Royal Army, who was only identified as Lieutenant R.R.; and Cuban Consul General, J. Perez. Others included: seven European and 13 native West India Regiment Army Non-Commissioned Officers and their families; 90 children reportedly killed when the school building they were in collapsed; 120 Cuban employees of the Machado Cigar Factory; 35 employees of the local tourist bureau; and 10 Americans who were buried in unmarked graves.
Among the buildings either severely damaged or destroyed were: the Supreme Court; Nova Scotia Bank; Congregational Churches; the Myrtle Bank Hotel; the City Council’s office; the Jamaica Club; Hope College; the railway terminus; all newspaper offices; and the cable company’s office.
Following the earthquake, a special committee was established to spearhead the monument’s erection at Bumper Hall. Among its members were representatives of The Gleaner Company, which reported extensively on the devastation. Research conducted by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) shows that the structure was built using reinforced concrete.
Speaking at a recent 110th anniversary commemorative ceremony organised by the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) at Bumper Hall, Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Minister, Hon. Olivia Grange, who has portfolio responsibility for the JNHT, said the agency was asked to analyse and assess various aspects of the monument in 2015. “Excavations carried out around the monument confirmed that the most significant aspect…was actually buried. A section of the wall surrounding the burial chamber of the approximately 500 unknown victims was discerned by the JNHT team in March 2015, and its presence was confirmed in an article of the Daily Gleaner of Thursday, June 3, 1909,” she informed. Ms. Grange further advised that the structure, which was restored, is located in the centre of the two burial trenches extending north and south.
Opposition Leader and Member of Parliament for South West St. Andrew, where the monument is located, the Most Hon. Portia Simpson Miller, who also spoke at the ceremony, hailed the community support mobilised in the restoration effort. “The people of Greenwich Town and residents of Little Eighth Street in particular have been the guardians of this national heritage site for the past 110 years. They are, therefore, deserving of commendation as we pay respect to those whose remains lay here,” she said.
Mrs. Simpson Miller also expressed gratitude for the input of several entities in the exercise. They include: the Culture, Health, Arts, Sports and Education (CHASE) Fund; Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) and Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo). “We also thank other agencies such as the Social Development Commission (SDC), Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF); Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT); Urban Development Corporation (UDC); and National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA),” she said. Mrs. Simpson Miller also praised the ODPEM for continuing to highlight the importance of earthquake awareness.
While earthquake awareness is observed annually in January, ODPEM has, this year, embarked on a three-month campaign, from January to March, under the theme: ‘Drop. Cover. Hold…Earthquake Readiness is within Your Control’.
ODPEM’s Director General, Major Clive Davis, who also spoke at the ceremony, said that for the duration of the campaign, “we will endeavour to bring information to the public, to sensitise and remind the populace of the earthquake hazards and how to manage them.”