Caught, drowned and never found

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kaalspruit river

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Though the Kaalspruit has claimed many lives, search and rescue teams have found only a handful of bodies. Still, they comb its dirty, shallow waters for Millicent Mampa. Pictures: Antoine de Ras

Johannesburg - There’s one thing those who’ve tried to rescue someone from the Kaalspruit River know.

They never say it out loud, especially to the families of those it has swallowed. They call it The River That Does Not Give Back.

If you were to be carried by the river’s heavy current, they know, the chances of your body being found are non-existent.

Starting from Birch Acres in Kempton Park, meandering through Midrand and Ivory Park and ending at the Irene Golf Course in Centurion, Kaalspruit has claimed the lives of people whose families never got closure because their bodies were never recovered.

Malcolm Midgley of Joburg’s Emergency Management Services (EMS) has 32 years’ experience. He is one of the many rescuers who’ve combed this river looking for someone it had taken.

Midgley remembers them all vividly: a woman who was washed away; a mother with her infant on her back who was caught in a storm while crossing; two elderly women caught in the strong current as they tried to cross on a makeshift bridge made of rubbish; and 10-year-old Millicent Mampa.

Of the six people he has helped look for in the past few years, the only person he has found is the six-month-old.

On November 30, Millicent was returning from Bonwelo Primary School in Ivory Park, Midrand when the river took her. Running in the pouring rain, she probably fell into a gully. The fast-flowing water carried her through a stormwater drain full of rocks and debris for a kilometre before depositing her in the spruit.

Three residents were injured trying to pull her out. Her body hasn’t been found.

According to Midgley, Kaalspruit is different to other rivers. Turbulence from the river and sand bury people washed into it.

A river like Klipspruit, on the other hand, does not flow fast and it subsides quickly.

Klipspruit also has reeds. A person who drowns is deposited into them when the water slows.

Kaalspruit moves quickly, it has no reeds and it has many sand deposits.

“There is too much sand in the river that comes from the sides.

“When someone is washed into the river, the turbulence and the sand push them deeper into the water,” Midgley says.

Rescuers from EMS, Ekurhuleni, Pretoria and the SAPS combed the river.

They followed it for four days until the search was called off.

When rescuers told Millicent’s mother, Yvonne, that they were going to stop the search, she asked why.

According to Midgley, the human brain can survive for four minutes without oxygen in cases of drowning.

At that point, emergency services will conduct a search and rescue operation.

After 45 minutes it becomes a crime scene. If the person is still in the water, the chances are they are dead.

Police then take over the scene and it becomes a search and discovery operation.

In Millicent’s case, the emergency team worked with the police, looking for her even though it was clear that she was long dead.

When the search was officially called off, Yvonne and her family and neighbours, walked along the river bank, looking for her first-born, refusing to believe what they knew to be true.

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