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‘You have to hang on for the sake of your child. You cannot die, your child needs you. Please hang on!”
Those were the desperate words of encouragement and support Howick fireman Ronnie Ndlovu offered to a 27-year-old woman who had attempted to plunge to her death from the top of Howick Falls on Monday.
Less than 10 minutes later, Ndlovu rescued Zama Vilakazi from death by tying a rope around her waist and pulling her to safety from the icy waterfall.
“She had been holding on to a small stone for almost 30 minutes. It was small and slippery which made it difficult for her to hold on.
“The water pressure was also great. I am surprised the force of the water did not push her over.
“It is a miracle she survived. Only God saved her. This is the first time, I have rescued a living person from the falls.
“I risked my life but I could not stand the thought of watching her plunge to her death. I would not have been able to live with myself.”
Ndlovu said the woman kept repeating the name Mduduzi.
“I asked her if that was her boyfriend and she said no. It was her brother. She said they had a fight and she decided to jump from the falls.”
He said the woman was from Kwashiefu settlement, near Mpophomeni, about 15km from Howick Falls.
“She and her brother were on their way home from the Howick Magistrate’s Court, when the trouble started. She jumped out of the taxi and walked to the falls.”
He said the details of the argument were unknown.
A group of women, washing clothes near the falls, saw her attempt to jump.
“She just walked past them and never said a word. They did not expect her to jump.
“When I got to her she was clinging on for life. I asked her if she had children and she said she had a three-year-old son. I pleaded with her to hang on for the sake of her child. That he needed her.
“She was a bit confused and dazed but I think she heard what I said.”
He said he hoped to visit the woman in hospital today.
Witness Stan Goodenough, who also took the pictures, was among those who watched in disbelief as Vilakazi edged her way to near the brink of the thundering 95m-high falls.
Goodenough, a volunteer with the informal association, Friends of the Falls, said he had been at the falls viewing platform, about 250m away, when he caught sight of Vilakazi. It was about 11am.
“I was with one of the (association) trainees, chatting to folk from East London. They asked if there had been any dramas lately. I said, ‘no’.”
But Goodenough had spoken too soon, as he discovered, in the very next moment.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw a woman on her bottom. She was 2m from the top lip (of the falls) edging on her bottom towards the lip.”
He said he immediately phoned Howick SAPS station commander, Colonel Richard Nyide, who arrived within minutes.
“We rushed over and also phoned the police rescue people and the fire department in Howick.”
Goodenough and Nyide got as close as they could, but although the water was “quite low”, were unable to communicate with the woman above the roar of the falls.
“At some point she seemed to turn sideways. We could then see her face and tried to indicate with hand signals that help was on its way. But there was no response,” Goodenough said.
“It was very evident we needed to get some rope and throw some rope to the woman and try to pull her back off the lip. She was in this position for 45 to 50 minutes,” he said. “There was lots of manpower but a question of equipment.”
But eventually, Ndlovu tied a rope around his waist and passed the other end to the other rescuers.
“He edged his way down, grabbed hold of her and literally dragged her against the flow back on to the bank at the top of the fall,” Goodenough said. “She was in a state of shock, very cold very shivery. Not able to communicate.
Netcare911 paramedic spokesman, Chris Botha, said paramedics treated the woman before she was taken to Northdale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg.
“She was extremely traumatised and very, very happy to be alive,” Botha said.
Vilakazi was sedated, a hospital matron told the Daily News on Monday.
“This has been a very traumatic experience for her and she will need to consult a psychologist as soon as she is able to,”
According to Howick Tourism, local legend has it that the pool at the bottom of the falls is the residence of the Inkanyamba – “an eel like creature with a horse-like head”.