Durban - A labourer who was buried in sand and debris, and then nearly drowned in raw sewage, spoke on Monday from his hospital bed of his 12-hour nightmare.
Nkosinathi Vilakazi, 45, had been working with colleagues digging a 12m trench to lay the foundations for a concrete retaining wall and fence on a private property in Orient Hills, Isipingo, on Saturday when the drama unfolded.
Vilakazi had dug to a depth of 3m down in the trench when the bank collapsed, which led to an avalanche of sand falling on him.
The collapsed bank also caused a municipal sewerage pipe to burst.
His entire body was initially covered with sand as his colleagues rushed to help him. They grabbed spades and dug up the sand around his head, enabling him to breathe while he was engulfed in sewage water.
Vilakazi, who is recovering in Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital, spoke on Monday about his brush with death.
“I was digging a hole inside the trench, which was already about 3m deep. The next thing I saw was sand starting to fall on top of me.
“This included stones and gravel. The wall had collapsed,” he said.
“I began crying, ‘help me, help me, I am dying’.
“Before I knew it my entire body was covered in sand. I was blinded.
“I just closed my eyes and before I knew it I couldn’t breathe anymore. I thought I was going to die. My entire body felt paralysed.”
After a while Vilakazi saw some sand being removed from his face, allowing him to breathe. He then saw his colleagues trying to rescue him.
Bongani Mshengo had been digging on the other side of the trench when he heard the wall collapse and the cries for help. He said two colleagues near Vilakazi pointed out the exact spot where he was buried.
“We ran over to their side and were shown where Nkosinathi was trapped. We took our spades and began digging,” Mshengo said.
“The wall collapsed and burst the sewerage pipe which began to fill up the hole. We managed to dig until his head showed so he was able to breathe.
“The burst sewerage pipe was making things extremely difficult as the sand was becoming muddy and difficult to dig. It was very difficult to clear everything at once.”
Thabiso Nkabinde, the owner of the property, said he had hired Vilakazi and the other labourers to assist him with the work on his property.
He said they started last week Monday to work on erecting a concrete fence around his property and they needed to lay the foundations by digging a trench.
He said they were preparing to pour in the concrete in it when the incident occurred.
“I could hear him trying to shout under the sand but because it was hard to breathe we couldn’t hear what he was saying. We started digging with spades and with our hands as we went deeper. His head surfaced and we continued digging until his waist also appeared,” said Nkabinde.
He said he then phoned the rescue services and paramedics to assist when they realized Vilikazi’s legs were trapped beneath the sand.
“It could have taken us about an hour to rescue him, because when the wall collapsed, it broke a sewage pipe running across the trench and the water came out flowing into the trench. It became difficult now to rescue him as the water kept on flowing but we continued to remove it with buckets,” he said.
Nkabinde said a municipal crew managed to stop the flow of water in the sewerage system to allow the rescue to continue.
A SAPS Search and Rescue officer, who would not be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, said they were called in to help quite late in the day.
“The constant rising of the water levels was a nightmare. This made the entire area muddy and trying to pull the man out was a huge problem,” he said.
“We were hoping that he would not drown.”
ER24 spokeswoman Luyanda Majija said Vilikazi had showed signs of hypothermia so paramedics put him on a heated drip.
The eThekwini fire, water and sanitation departments also attended the scene.
Nkabinde said on Monday night that Vilikazi was doing well and that, apart from some lacerations and bruising in the pelvic area, he had not suffered any major injuries or fractured bones.