Kimberley - Five municipal workers died at Kimberley’s sewerage works on Tuesday afternoon when one of them succumbed to methane gas fumes and the other four were engulfed by rising sludge in a series of failed rescue attempts.
While the exact details of what happened are still being investigated, four workers apparently tried to rescue one of their colleagues who became trapped inside a pump station while he was unclogging a pump that was overflowing.
It is believed that the workers may have been covered in sludge for about 15 minutes before someone raised the alarm.
Spokesman for the Northern Cape police, Lieutenant Donald Mdhluli, said on Tuesday that the police were investigating an inquest into their deaths.
ER24’s operations manager in the Northern Cape, Albert Hensberg, who was on standby at the scene while emergency workers retrieved to bodies, stated that methane inhalation induced drowsiness and could result in instant death.
The Kimberley fire brigade, the Sol Plaatje Municipality’s emergency workers and ambulance personnel, Hazmat, the police’s forensic unit, crime scene experts as well as the police’s diving unit raced to the scene at about 12.45pm on Tuesday afternoon.
Waste water had to be pumped out before rescue workers were able to reach the bodies.
The first body was retrieved at about 3.15pm on Tuesday afternoon while the last body was brought to the surface at about 5.45pm.
Other workers at the plant were extremely emotional and traumatised by the incident and are no longer willing to work in the pump station, which they called a “death trap”.
They pointed out that safety checks were rarely conducted and felt that their lives were in danger.
Spokesman for the Sol Plaatje Municipality, Sello Matsie, confirmed the incident and described the selfless actions of the four workers, who tried to save the life of the first worker, as “heroic”.
“One worker was tasked to clean the pump house in which four pumps, all about six metres deep, are located. It appears as if sludge came out at one of the monitors and the worker was overcome by methane gas and sludge that filled the room. The sludge was about one and a half metres deep.
“The other workers, in turn, tried to rescue their colleagues which eventually resulted in the deaths of five people.”
He said the identities of the deceased workers could not be released until their next of kin have been informed.
“Their deaths are a tragedy.”
Matsie indicated that several investigations would be launched by various state departments and the police as well as the municipality.
“We were alerted by a hysterical worker that one of the workers had collapsed and that others had gone in to assist him. At that stage we believed that the workers were still alive. I immediately contacted the emergency services, the police and the fire brigade.”
He explained that the building in which the workers were found, retained methane gas.
“There is a machine that monitors the gas levels inside the pump house. However, we do not want to speculate on the cause of death and will allow the Department of Labour to determine the exact chain of events.
“There are plans in place, in conjunction with the Department of Environment and Water Affairs, to refurbish the plant. There is normally strict adherence to safety,” Matsie added.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased.”
He added that more information will be made available on Wednesday.
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