Johannesburg -

He was cold, wet and exhausted. But he was safe. Bheki*, 25, sat shivering on the bridge of the Sand River on Thursday, where just moments before he was rescued from the rapid surge of water caused by heavy rainfall in Mpumalanga.

The SAPS diving unit for the lowveld of the province was called in after locals of the village near Bushbuckridge had spotted Bheki on a concrete base of the bridge, just slightly above the water level.

He said he had tried to cross the river on Wednesday afternoon to go see his grandmother, but locals told rescuers that he has been seen sleeping under the bridge before and could possibly have a mental disorder.

While the unit gave him water to drink and put a first-aid blanket around his shoulders to keep him warm, Bheki’s left leg bobbed up and down rapidly as he sat on his haunches against the concrete wall of the bridge.

One of his rescuers, Warrant Officer Charl van Niekerk, had picked him up and hauled him to safety through the water fireman-style, with Bheki slung across his back.

Although he was modest about the rescue, as he said it was just part of the job, Van Niekerk said the adrenalin still pumps “when I pull one out”.

“I was a bit scared, nobody is like a machine, but that’s why you undergo training,” he said. “You must be fit and you must know the swells and tides.”

The clouds had mostly dissipated by the time the rescue happened, but the unit’s provincial co-ordinator said sunny weather after a storm was often the busiest period for them.

He said people became more confident when the sun was out, believing that the waters would be safer.

However, rivers could still be violent as they were travelling from their sources, where heavy rains could still be creating floods.

On Wednesday, a woman in labour had to be airlifted to hospital.

Initially, the diving unit had received information that she had tried to cross Louw’s Creek near Barberton and had to seek refuge in a tree, but this information was later proved untrue.

ER24 spokeswoman Luyanda Majija confirmed that the woman was airlifted to Nelspruit Mediclinic, but at the institution, the new mother declined to speak to The Star on Thursday.

“As yet we haven’t received any indication of disasters or major damages caused by flooding,” said Simphiwe Kunene, spokesman for the Mpumalanga Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

“But we have our disaster teams on full alert at provincial and municipal level.”


* Not his real name

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The Star