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Durban - Families of the seven people who died while tackling a traffic police recruitment fitness test in searing heat, are demanding answers from the authorities.
Seven hopefuls lost their lives from dehydration and heatstroke after being made to try and run 4km in under 30 minutes as part of Road Traffic Inspectorate (RTI) recruitment trials in Pietermaritzburg on Thursday and Friday.
Hundreds more were admitted to hospital for treatment after collapsing on the route. One participant said on Sunday he saw people around him “falling like flies”, before he also collapsed.
Temperatures soared to between 35 and 40 degrees in Pietermaritzburg on those days.
Thobeka Dlamini, the aunt of the one of the men who lost their lives on Thursday, said: “We are all still in shock. My nephew was so excited to apply to become a traffic officer.
“His dream killed him, and now we want to know why this happened. Somebody must be held responsible for his death.”
The MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, Willies Mchunu, who visited the survivors in hospital on Saturday, has suspended the recruitment drive since the deaths.
Mchunu said he was shocked at the manner in which the trials had been held and has asked investigators to look into events at the Harry Gwala Stadium, where more than 34 000 people arrived to compete for the 90 trainee posts on offer.
According to the RTI, 15 000 applicants arrived to take the tests on Thursday, and close to 16 000 on Friday.
The applicants reportedly had no access to water or medical attention on the route. They were also evidently left unsupervised while performing the fitness tests.
“These poor young people could not cope with the heat and collapsed. I have decided that the process be stopped with immediate effect, both out of respect for those who lost their lives and to investigate why this tragedy occurred,” Mchunu said.
No charges have been laid and the department has yet to release the names of the deceased.
On Sunday, Thembalani Zondi, a 26-year old Vryheid man, who took part in the trials recounted the ordeal.
“I felt like I could not breathe. My heart was racing and my chest seized up. The next thing I knew I was in hospital,” he told the Daily News.
Of the 230 people who were admitted to hospital, only 10 still remained on Sunday to require further medical attention.
All the others were discharged over the weekend.
Zondi, who was treated for heatstroke and dehydration and was discharged on Sunday, said that he was initially stunned when he arrived at the stadium on Friday to find thousands of people there.
“We were even more shocked when we were told to just start performing all these fitness tests without any prior warning or preparation. No water or first aid kits were provided. When we started running, I just saw people falling down around me like flies,” Zondi said.
He said that he continued to run, but soon felt the effects of the heat on his body.
“I thought I was going to die.”
In a statement released by the ANC in KZN on Sunday, the party said that it strongly believes that the test instructors failed to take the necessary measures to protect vulnerable applicants from the extreme weather conditions.
“Even though traffic officers are expected to work in all weather conditions, necessary measures were supposed to be taken to protect them from the scorching summer temperatures.
The ANC has called on Mchunu to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the deaths.
DA spokesman, Sizwe Mchunu, said the party welcomed Mchunu’s intervention.
“We do believe that the officials responsible for the screening process should be brought to book and explain why a system of that nature was used,” he said.
Mchunu described the screening process as “exposing and compromising”.
According to a local medical doctor, Adam Stanton, dehydration and heatstroke are two common heat-related conditions that can be life threatening if left untreated.
“Dehydration is caused when the body loses water content and essential body salts and the body is not being replenished,” he said.
Stanton said that heatstroke is the most severe form of heat illness and is a life-threatening emergency. It is the result of long, extreme exposure to the sun, in which a person does not sweat enough to lower body temperature. It is a condition that develops rapidly and requires immediate medical treatment.
“Our bodies produce a tremendous amount of internal heat and we normally cool ourselves by sweating and radiating heat through the skin. However, in certain circumstances, such as extreme heat, high humidity, or vigorous activity in the hot sun, this cooling system may begin to fail, allowing heat to build up to dangerous levels,” said Stanton.
Dehydration and the inability to sweat enough to cool the body leads to internal temperature rising to dangerous levels, causing heatstroke.