On May 22, 2009, a fire broke out in the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, in Alexandria, St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. Seven girls were burned to death. Five died the night of the fire: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, all 16 years old; and Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15. Later, two more died from the fire: Georgina Saunders, 16, Stephanie Smith, 17.
There were 23 girls in a small space. Sixteen managed to crawl through the fire, to the narrow windows, and out.
Armadale was shut down. An inquiry was launched. The Armadale Enquiry Commission met for over nine months. Its report roundly condemns the government. The fire was set by a spark from a tear gas canister, tossed in the room by a guard. The straw bedding ignited.
On March 2, 2010, Prime Minister Bruce Golding reported to Parliament. The Jamaican press reports that the government “accepts `ultimate responsibility’ for Armadale.” Advocates on all sides debate the government response.
In his remarks, the Prime Minister, not surprisingly, frames the story as tragedy. He opens with tragedy: “The report of the Commission of Enquiry into the tragedy that occurred at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre on May 22, 2009 is being tabled in the House today.”
He closes with tragedy: “The awful tragedy that occurred at Armadale should not have been allowed to happen. We must ensure that no such tragedy ever again occurs. Some wards of our juvenile correctional institutions have turned out to be exceptionally good and successful adults. We must strive to ensure that they are not the exception but become the norm.”
He articulates `ultimate responsibility’ as a function of tragedy: “While public officers must be held accountable for the discharge of their duties, the government must accept ultimate responsibility for the circumstances that led to the Armadale tragedy and for the inadequate facilities provided to care for children who are placed in juvenile correctional or remand facilities. Resource constraints do impose a heavy burden on public officers who work in these facilities but it cannot explain or excuse negligence or inertia.”
What exactly is the tragedy here, and how is ultimate responsibility to be understood?
Almost one hundred years ago, there was another fire, women killed, tragedy invoked.
March 25, 1911: “Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.”
What happened that Saturday, in New York City? When the fire struck, the workers, almost all women, almost all recent immigrants, ran to the fire exits and found them locked, rushed to the windows only to find that the ladders and the water hoses didn’t reach that high. The young women then decided … to die by the flame or to leap and die in the fall. Who had decided to build such tall buildings? Who had decided to lock the doors?
“The Triangle fire had been replayed as tragedy, as destiny, as horror story, as political catalyst. Now it would be examined once more, as a question of justice: Was it right to hold anyone personally responsible? And if it was right, was it possible?”
There is no distance in time or miles between the 1911 Triangle Waist Factory, New York, fire, and the 2009 Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, St Ann Parish, one. What, then, is the tragedy; is it possible to hold anyone responsible?
If women are locked in, sooner or later the fires will kill them. If women are forced into overcrowded spaces, sooner or later the fires will kill them. How can planned death be accidental? How can a horrible event that is not destined but rather designed by human beings and perfectly obvious in its detail, how exactly can that event be called a tragedy?
The nobility of the tragic that was so quickly, so easily painted across the face of these two events is a means of obscuring their ordinariness. And it is the ordinariness of the deaths at Armadale and at Triangle that haunts. These are stories of the ways in which death sentences are imposed on women workers, on women prisoners, on women.
Someone was meant to die at Armadale, and that someone was meant to be a young woman, a girl. Which girl, how many girls, remained open. But someone was meant to die there, in a fire. And someone did. And she was a young woman, a girl. And absolutely no one can claim ultimate responsibility for that until they have transformed the everyday world of ordinary women and girls in which women are the fastest growing prison population, and women are the majority of sweatshop workers.
Dan Moshenberg, email@example.com