Disasters in South Africa (In relation to water)
The Westdene bus accident
March 27, 1985, Johannesburg--- 42 teenagers drowned after the bus they were traveling in left the road while it was crossing the dam. A flimsy wire fence between the road and the water could not stop the bus from plunging into the dam. Within minutes only the roof of the bus was above water. Only 30 of the 72 children in the double-decker bus survived the accident.
The rescue operation consisted of extracting the teenagers through ventilation and broken windows with protruding shards of glass. Rescuers also searched for others in the silt and muddy water. Survivors were put on the top of the bus while others who were able swam approximately 20 ft. to safety. The survivors were transported to a nearby hospital by ambulance and helicopter while the deceased were taken to a mortuary.
Parents traveled between the accident scene, hospital and mortuary, frantically searching for their children. "I recognised his build under the sheet before he was shown to me," a distraught mother said.
On April 1 thirty-five of the teenangers were buried in the Heroes Acre of the Westpark Cemetery.
The bus itself was hauled out of the water six hours after the accident.
I knew most of those children personally. At the age of nine they were in my Sunday school class and for many years I enjoyed their company at Sunday school concerts and picnics. They lived all around me; I saw them regularly at church, school and in the shopping centre.
Retrospection and following events
Survivors of the accident recalled -
- "...flying through the air..."
- “...worrying about a suitcase filled with books...”
- “...water rushing up the stairway...”
- "…water came too quickly through the windows…”
- “…couldn't kick out the window…"
- “...children running screaming towards the back where older children were trying to kick out the emergency window...”
- “...blacking out...”
- Theo de Kooker: “My sister (Eurika) was black when I pulled her out of the bus. Something told me to pull her tongue forward, and the water rushed out of her."
- Eurika, who was ten minutes in the water, experienced the following: “... a feeling of dying, as if going downwards towards a light, then pulled away from the light and not able to take my eyes off the light, then waking up, lying on the roof of the bus, realizing I should have died.”
There were rumours –
- Some mischievous learners in the top deck tried to irritate the bus driver by swinging together from side to side, causing a situation the driver could not control.
- The driver blacked out.
- A tire blew out, sending the bus swerving into another vehicle before it smashed through a fence and plunged into the dam.
Looking back, many of the survivors recalled having a hunch that something bad is going to happen. One learner had a feeling that she will never see her mother again and wrote a letter, leaving it in her Bible before she went to school. During the school break at 11:00am learners who knew each other since grade one, but formed new friendships in high school, unexpectedly met and shared good memories, laughing, hugging and kissing. In the bus most of the learners were quiet, gazing through the windows, while they were normally loud and noisy.
A stronger barrier was erected after the accident -
It was an opportunity to recognise true heroes. Siblings, peers, local residents and teachers risked their lives to save lives.
One learner, Pieter Koen (17), rescued five of his peers including his cousin, but did not return from his sixth dive.
Awards for bravery were given to the following children for rescuing their schoolmates: Willem van Aswegen, Theo de Kooker, Coenraad Viljoen, John Gordon, Martin van Lelyveld, Petrus van Heerden, Matthys Wehmeyer, Daniel du Toit, Gerhard Waldeck, Rudi Opperman, Reinette van Deventer and Pieter Koen (posthumously).
In South Africa heroes are rewarded with the Dirkie Uys and Wolraad Woltemade awards for bravery. (I will tell their stories in following hubs.)
Survivors, and all who were emotionally involved, lived on, sensitive to others going through loss, and thankful for the opportunity to be alive.
Authorities took another look at the road-worthiness of busses and the safety barriers of dangerous roads.
Public safety departments, such as fire brigades, ambulance services and hospitals and mortuaries once again realize that they should always be prepared for the worst.
The bus driver, Willem Horne
Horne survived the disaster, but was kept under police guard at the hospital, for he was threatened by angry, grieving white parents who believed the accident was racially motivated. After being released from the hospital Horne was indeed attack in his home by three white men and left for dead with a large slash in his neck.
He was a forty-one-year old coloured man (with black and white ancestors) and the father of five children, aged between 10 and 18. He was described as "a hard-working family man", and not capable of deliberately driving the bus into the dam. His regular passengers regarded him as an excellent and conscientious driver. A week before the accident he stressed how relieved he was for not having any accidents yet.
The schoolchildren were on good terms with him. He was always friendly. On the specific day he was driving the bus faster than normal, but he was not breaking the speed limit.
It was in the time of Apartheid. Blacks in South Africa were in revolt, rioting, boycotting and staying away from work. They were brutally forced by the Government to obey Apartheid’s laws. Fearful whites were emigrating. Racial tensions were high.
Horne was charge with culpable homicide. His case was finally heard in March 1986. He could not remember the details of the accident. A psychologist labelled his condition as "retrograde amnesia", and his ‘black outs’, which were proposed as the cause of the accident, where imputed to an injury he suffered three years before the accident, when he had been assaulted by four men. (Assaults were the order of the day in coloured communities). Judge Johann Kriegler declared Horne not guilty and "an honourable man".
Horne’s words after the trial: “My family and I have been very distressed at this tragedy. I pray to God to give us the strength and to give the families of the children the strength to overcome the disaster. I express my deep condolence to the families. I want to thank all the people that stood by me and gave me message of support, and I also thank my employers for my job."
Shortly after the court case one of Horne’s own children was killed in a hit and run accident.
Similar accidents in South Africa
- On 2 May 2003 fifty-one municipal workers were killed on their way from Kimberley to Phuthaditshaba to attend a May Day rally. They were Cosatu-affiliated trade unionists. "… always available to fight for the rights of those who can’t fight for themselves,” was said about them. Only ten people - nine men and one woman - survived this accident. The driver, who did not survive, apparently took a wrong turn and plunged down a steep dirt road into the dam.
- In the mid-1990’s a bus carrying some 90 forestry workers to work plunged into a dam near Lothair, Mpumalanga, claiming 38 lives.
- The Helderberg plane disaster is another water-related tragedy in the history of South-Africa. Extract from the Scorpions preliminary report dated 21 May 2001 to the Minister of Transport stressed the following: “…On 28 November 1987 at approximately 00:07:00 a South African Airways Boeing 747-244B Combi crashed into the Indian ocean 134 nautical miles north-east of the Plaisance Airport of Mauritius. There were 140 passengers and 19 crew aboard. Nobody survived. The finding of the Board of Inquiry was that "the accident allowed an uncontrolled fire in the forward right pallet on the main deck cargo compartment. The aircraft crashed into the sea at high speed following a loss of control consequent on the fire…”
- Heavy rains often cause floods which damage and destroy agriculture, bridges, and roads, all kinds of structures, homes, business properties and vehicles. During these disasters many people drown, or get stranded and displaced.
- Embankment failures and dam wall breaches following heavy rain caused the death of many people in the past. Mudslides often intensify these kind of disasters.
Drowning is death from asphyxia due to suffocation caused by a liquid entering the lungs and preventing the absorption of oxygen. Asphyxia is a condition of severely deficient supply of oxygen to the body that arises from being unable to breathe normally.
A continued lack of oxygen in the brain will quickly render a victim unconscious. An unconscious victim rescued with an airway still sealed from laryngospasm stands a good chance of a full recovery. Artificial respiration is also much more effective without water in the lungs. At this point the victim stands a good chance of recovery if attended to within minutes. Latent hypoxia is a special condition leading to unconsciousness where the partial pressure of oxygen in the lungs under pressure at the bottom of a deep free-dive is adequate to support consciousness but drops below the blackout threshold as the water pressure decreases on the ascent, usually close to the surface as the pressure approaches normal atmospheric pressure. A blackout on ascent like this is called a deep water blackout.
Drowning is most often quick and unspectacular. Its media depictions as a loud, violent struggle have much more in common with distressed non-swimmers, a condition that may precede drowning. An aspyhxicating person seldom calls for help.
A lack of oxygen or chemical changes in the lungs may cause the heart to stop beating; this cardiac arrest stops the flow of blood and thus stops the transport of oxygen to the brain. Cardiac arrest used to be the traditional point of death but at this point there is still a chance of recovery. The brain will die after approximately six minutes without oxygen but special conditions may prolong this.
Mammalian Dive Reflex
Drowning suffocation causes a lack of oxygen, resulting in death in only a few minutes. An exception to this rule appears in victims who have been suddenly and rapidly submerged into ice-cold water (<32F, 0C). Some of these people have survived up to an hour underwater without any resultant physical damage. This phenomenon is known as the mammalian dive reflex, which is activated when the face and body plunge into ice-cold water, resulting in the slowing of body metabolism as well as diverting blood only to the heart, lungs, and brain. If someone gradually becomes hypothermic (gradual lowering of body temperature), this reflex does not apply.
Where was God?
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8- There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
Romans 8:28- And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Quotes regarding disasters
- When a big disaster happens, it heightens the philanthropic impulse – (Daniel Borochoff)
- He who sees the calamity of other people finds his own calaminy light - (Arabian Proverb quote)
- In the past, people worked together only when some great disaster threatened -
- Many a happiness in life, as many a disaster, can be due to chance, but the peace within us can never be governed by chance - (Maurice Maeterlinck)
- Only after disaster can we be resurrected – (Chuck Palahniuk)
- Living things have been doing just that for a long, long time: Through every kind of disaster and setback and catastrophe we are survivors – (Robert Fulghum)
- Disaster can strike anyone at any time. I could be me tonight – (Amy Gabriel)
- It is clear that disaster has changed this country – (Brian Williams)
- Natural disasters bring out the best in people – (Chris Swecker)