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Durban - A family’s attempt to “serve the community” met with tragedy on Monday, when a bakkie loaded with 30 schoolchildren plunged into a sludge dam on the D525 road between Mooi River and Greytown.
Five children died while 25 survived the horror crash.
Grieving mother Victoria Shelembe was battling with mixed emotions upon learning that four of her children survived. However her daughter Phumlani died when the bakkie she owned plunged into the dam.
The vehicle was driven by Shelembe’s nephew, who survived the crash.
The children lived on various farms along the road and had been picked up in the morning to be dropped off at Senzokuhle High and Tauricus Primary schools, in Mooi River. Altogether, 30 children had been crammed in the back of the bakkie.
It was believed that as it was coming down the gravel road, the driver lost control at a bend, drove through the fence at the side of the road and plunged into the dam at Elsmore Farm. He had avoided a culvert, made by people who had been working on the road and laying stormwater drains.
Shelembe said she and her husband decided to transport children to school, “to serve the community”, as there was no transport available.
They had hired her nephew as the driver, because he was experienced. He told her after the crash that the brakes had failed. However, she said that the van had no mechanical problems.
“I am grateful my four children are still alive. They were taken to the Greytown Hospital. I thank God… ” she said, before breaking down and crying uncontrollably.
All day, people stood around and watched as police and rescue workers searched for the last body and tried to retrieve the bakkie. Farmers also stopped to offer assistance.
Donna Lay was one of the first on the scene. She said she was at home when she got a call about the accident.
“I put the phone down and came immediately. The bakkie was submerged. It could not be seen at all.
The sludge in the dam was about 5m deep.
She said there were children on the bank of the dam. They were shivering and screaming for those still buried in the sludge.
Farmworkers and neighbours had helped the survivors out of the dam.
“I moved them away from the scene as soon as possible to avoid more trauma. I thought it would have been better if they did not see bodies,” she said.
Neighbours brought blankets.
“We took off their clothes and covered them with blankets before paramedics arrived… it was very cold in the morning, about 5ºC.”
Lay said she believed the driver had tried to avoid the open drain, near the dam. She was furious that there were no guard rails or any safety measures telling motorists of the drains.
“This is an accident waiting to happen,” she said, pointing towards the drain.
Sthembiso Phungula, the father of Nokwazi, 12, could not believe that his daughter was dead. He said his 8-year-old son usually travelled with his sister, but on Monday, he was not feeling well, so he did not go to school.
“He was lucky.”
Phungula said his
Nokwazi was intelligent and had had dreams of becoming a nurse.
Happiness Shezi, the mother of 7-year-old Lindokuhle Mayekiso who died, was in shock. He was her fourth child and her only son.
The fourth child who died was Grade 1 pupil Amanda Khanyile.
The name of the fifth dead child found had not been released.
Emergency medical services spokesman Robert Mckenzie said most of the dam was drained so that the bodies could be recovered. However, it still had thick mud sediment and the fifth body was only found in the afternoon.
Attempts to use a bulldozer to lift the bakkie failed. It was later used to scoop mud away from the bakkie. A high-pressure water hose was also used to try to free the bakkie.
Police spokesman Thulani Zwane said the cause of the accident was being investigated.
The driver had been arrested and would be charged with culpable homicide.
Education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni conveyed her condolences. “As a department, we are saddened by this accident and untimely death of young learners. It is very sad to lose such young people,” she said.
* Eleven people fell off a truck in the Phoenix industrial area on Monday afternoon, Prem Balram of Reaction Unit South Africa reported. It appears that the truck’s back doors opened and passengers all fell out of the moving vehicle. They were all in a critical condition.