Near-death commute

COWICK PARK, Manchester — With schools set to reopen tomorrow, parents and their children in communities near the north-west Manchester/southern Trelawny border fear that their lives will be placed at great risk crossing a river where a bridge collapsed a year ago.

Public despair has been heightened since the authorities seem to have no clear idea of when a replacement bridge will be erected.

While sympathetic to the residents’ plight, minister with responsibility for works Everald Warmington says the replacement bridge may take two budget cycles (two years). According to the minister, engineers are still working on a design for the bridge.

A journey that was a short, safe walk in times past can now take up to two hours and $1,100 in transportation costs since the bridge was washed away on August 18, 2021.

Residents, unable to afford that time and cost, have resorted to dangerous makeshift arrangements of their own, including a zipline featuring market crates and rope to get them across the fast-moving river which is now swollen and breaking its banks following weeks of heavy rain.

They had also used long bamboo poles as a kind of temporary bridge, but with the river now in spate and some poles washed away, that arrangement is no longer an option, some residents say.

Hazeline Williams is grateful that her 14-year-old grandson Damar Webby survived, having almost drowned while crossing the river at Troy, Trelawny, on his way home from school, less than a mile from their home in Cowick Park, Manchester, in June.

At the same time, she is worried that his return to Troy High School starting tomorrow will place him in danger, as the 15-mile alternative route through Christiana is not an option because of the high cost.

“I transferred him from Knox College (in Spalding) to Troy and jumped right back in the frying pan, so I don’t know what they (Government) are going to do about it. I hope they do something about it very fast,” Williams told the Jamaica Observer last week.

Member of Parliament for Manchester North Western Mikael Phillips, who fell while attempting to cross the river in June, has been lobbying for the bridge to be replaced, calling on the Government to speed up the design phase and arrive at an estimate.

“It cannot take one year to do an estimate for the bridge,” said a frustrated Phillips. “We have not gotten the estimate, no drawings have been completed. We hear that the geological testing is still being done after one year. That is not service, that’s not commitment to the people who are affected,” he said.

“We would love to hear something in short order, even a cost, so that people know what to expect from what not to expect,” he added.

Warmington, though, has no comforting answers, stating only that the money has to be found.

“Looking at it, we won’t be able to do it in one budget so we might have to do it over two years, two budget cycles as such. We will start it, and then complete it in the other year. But, it has to be replaced — there are no ifs or buts about it,” Warmington told the Sunday Observer in March.

Last week, in providing an update, he said he is awaiting a design from the engineers for the new bridge

“As soon as it is done, then we are just going to go straight with it. We still need it to be done,” he said.

Life for almost 2,000 residents has become increasingly difficult since the bridge collapsed. At least three people in recent weeks narrowly escaped death while crossing the river.

Damar recounted how he lost his balance on his way home from school.

“I was coming across with my father and he was showing me where to put my foot and hold on. He tied a rope on a wire, but it wasn’t firm, so when I held on to it, it just slipped out and I lost balance and I went under the water. I went on to some stones. I had to hold my breath so that I could come out and he saw me and grabbed after me,” said the teenager, who is not looking forward to returning to school on Monday due to his near-death experience.

“I don’t feel good, but I have to cross it because I don’t have the money to go around because that is a lot of fare to be paying. But, I still have fear going across there,” he said.

His grandmother remembers vividly the evening she almost lost her grandson.

“The day in question I was here waiting for him to come home from school and I waited until about seven o’clock. I got a phone call that he fell in the river; it was so devastating I started to cry. I didn’t know what to do. I was here waiting for about 30 minutes then he came. He was all cut up,” she said.

“His clothes were like he was rolling in the mud; the pants and the shirt had no use again. I threw them away,” she recalled.

Phillips said the situation is dire.

“Like how we have been having rain, school starts on Monday, I know for a fact that many students have been transferred from the schools. I know that teachers who live in Manchester or St Elizabeth that have to go to the schools — primary, basic and high — in Troy either have to pay extra money, travelling an extra 15 miles to go to school,” he said.

“As MP I have been speaking about it ever since the bridge went down. Persons within the community feel that I have the resources to replace the bridge. This should be done by central government,” he added.

Phillips, who is Opposition spokesman on works, is also calling on the Government to address dilapidated and collapsed bridges across the country.

“If you look islandwide there are some 30 bridges that are down. Let us think about what we are experiencing in Troy [and also] about the other 29 communities that are affected by bridges that have collapsed, and the resources that have not been put in place to replace those bridges,” he said.

“I am taking up the offer of Minister Warmington when he came to visit the [Troy] bridge that it cannot be done in one year. We accept that, residents accept it. What we want is for it to start and have a completion date, even if it cannot be done in one financial year. We know once it starts it will be done — and the people deserve that,” he insisted.

Phillips also pointed out that the remaining section of the collapsed Troy bridge is being eroded, and expressed fear that the Noisy River Bridge at Oxford, just south of Troy, will be exposed to a similar risk.

“If you are to look at the other bridge down in Oxford that goes over the Noisy River, if we are not careful it will also go down, just like the Troy bridge. That will maroon communities – Auchtembeddie, Cowick Park, Glasgow, Breeze Hole,” he said.

Dulcy Bromfield, a resident of Cowick Park, is not happy that she will have to foot a costly transportation bill for her two sons to get safely to Troy High School — less than a mile from their home — via the alternative route.

“I can’t do no transfer for them, and if they travel from here to Christiana to reach school it will cost me $20,000 per week, which I don’t have. I don’t know how I am going to manage now with them to cross the river. It is very dangerous, very terrible,” Bromfield said.

Pointing to the danger of using the makeshift zipline, Bromfield said, “Even Saturday this guy was crossing over and him fall out the crate. Him have to hold on pon the rope. The river come down, him seh it [rope] burn him hand and him couldn’t let go, because if him let go him would be a dead person.”

Less than a quarter mile from her home, the Sunday Observer spoke with the man to whom Bromfield was referring, Danville Green, who was still in shock.

“Mi drop off [the crate] and heng up pon the rope so and hold tight up deh. Mi bawl fi help,” said Green.

Bromfield said the collapsed bridge should be replaced as a matter of public emergency, and appeared to speculate that partisan politics could be at the heart of the delay.

“They need to do something for us! This is not politics, no politics cannot play inna this for people going to lose dem life. People have to access the bridge to go to the wholesale market in Christiana, buy dem likkle vegetables,” she said.

“We cannot live in this condition, it is like nobody cares about us. We have to go do a serious demonstration… Our voices have to be heard in a drastic manner,” she declared.

Elaine Brown, who also lives in Cowick Park, said her grandson has been facing a tough time commuting to Holmwood Technical High School near Christiana. She explained that the teenager must travel west to Balaclava for a connecting ride to Mandeville, many miles away, before travelling another long distance by taxi to Christiana in northern Manchester .

“I have a grandson who has to get up from five o’clock in the morning and leave here the latest 15 minutes to 6:00 am. And can you imagine leaving here to go to Balaclava, getting something to go to Mandeville, and from Mandeville to Christiana, and the same thing in the evening? Can you maths out that?” she asked while comparing what was once an easy commute over the Troy bridge.

“He could easily walk to Troy and in the evening when he gets off the taxi he just walks down,” she lamented.

Another resident, Donovan Mitchell, said he was forced to transfer his six children — five sons and one daughter — from Troy High.

“Right now, mi haffi send dem go Balaclava school. It cost me,” he told the Sunday Observer outside the only remaining corner shop in the community.

“That deh shop deh lock down. Three more lock down. This is the only shop here so a run…Nuh yam stick nah sell again. No food nah come in. Everything stop, so wi a suffer,” he explained.

Constantine Myers, more popularly called Old Soldier, operates a bar south of Cowick Park at Noisy River.

“You see due to how the bridge deh bruk down, nobody nuh [really] come from Trelawny [anymore] so it slow down [business and] it nuh look like that bridge a go fix for now,” he said.

Michael Wright, a resident of Oxford, said people from St Elizabeth also depend on the Troy bridge.

“Children from Oxford going to school have it hard to take a different route to go to Christiana, which is over an hour, while right here [through Troy] is like 25 minutes to reach school,” he explained.

Yvonne Rickard, who is Bromfield’s sister, said she is very concerned about children and teachers getting to school and wondered if the authorities care.

“It seems as if we do not have any right or we don’t have any say. This road leads you from Negril Point to Morant Point and when wi look, wi cut off altogether,” she pointed out.

“We have our crops; it come in like everything just lay waste. Children now to go to school… Many of them have to [transfer] to Balaclava [while] we have the school here … we cannot live like this,” she stated.

She called on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to intervene.

“They have to step up, and the Government has to step up and try to help wi that if a even a likkle temporary bridge that the children and we the elders can walk on it. One old lady almost drowned out there the other day because she fell,” she said.

“The prime minister need to step up because him [should] know about this and him have him children so him must concern. Just like how him concern about his children, him must concern about our children and the safety of the teachers,” insisted Rickard.

“We need the bridge, so we are asking you, Prime Minister, please to step up for us, for we cannot live like this,” she said.

Another resident, Cleveland Roberts, said he is not willing to chance crossing the river.

“Mi seh who wah go inna the box gwaan inna the box [but] mi nah go inna no box at all. Dem must come fix the place so that we can get to walk. The bamboo dem soon bruk. We want di bridge! We nah talk bout nuh politics,” he said.

“When the time come unuh wi get unuh vote. If unuh a PNP or Labourite unuh wi get unuh vote, but we want the bridge. We are suffering. Not even post office we can’t get to go. Imagine that!” he shouted.

“Look from when mi fi get the likkle money and all now mi cyaan go cross the bridge fi go fi it. If mi ever go out deh mi drown,” he said, while laughing.

“You see this road here, it is the most important road for it carry every Jesus thing you can think of… Straight inna Montego Bay [and] Ochi. A one year gone now… We cut bamboo till wi weak,” disclosed Roberts.

He questioned the pace and expenditure on road infrastructure in urban areas compared to deep rural Jamaica.

“I believe seh dem waiting until somebody dead then you see dem a run come. Yuh see how quick dem fix Three Mile bridge? So Three Mile is different from Manchester?” he asked.

“We nuh want money. We want bridge fi walk pon! Yuh know from when mi fi go buy wan likkle [cooking] gas and mi cyaa go?” he added.

Owen Dixon, a resident of the neighbouring community of Auchtembeddie, said the bridge is in the middle of the country.

“It is the central bridge for Jamaica and all the people from Trelawny — Jackson Town, Albert Town — use the bridge, and if you are going from Auchtembeddie/Oxford going to Montego Bay, it nearer than to go [through the west],” he said.

“If Jamaica a 60 and we a suffer over one likkle bridge weh serve half a Jamaica, no man, it bad!” he shouted.

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