Netcare helicopter crash: Witness tells of terrible images
Durban - A woman who heard the downed Netcare 911 helicopter explode in a farm field has asked God to erase the terrible images of the remnants of the crash from her mind.
Marietjie Warden was among the first people to arrive at the field after the emergency helicopter crashed and killed the five people on board.
Those who died were Dr Kgopotso Rudolph Mononyane, an anaesthetist, Dr Curnick Siyabonga (Sia) Mahlangu, a cardiothoracic surgeon, Mpho Xaba, a specialist theatre nurse for cardiothoracic and transplant, all from Netcare Milpark Hospital, Sinjin Joshua Farrance, an advanced life support paramedic at Netcare 911, and the pilot of the helicopter, Mark Stoxreiter, who worked for National Airways Corporation.
The healthcare workers were part of an ECMO (extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation) team, on their way to try to save a patient in Hillcrest. The crash happened in the Winterton area near the N3 between Colenso and Ladysmith.
“We all presume it was one of the fuel tanks,” Warden said, describing Thursday’s tragedy on their farm, Kopleegte, beside the N3.
Earlier, she and her husband had heard a first “big bang” while sitting quietly in their farmhouse.
“One of our labourers shouted 'ibhaonyi iwile' (a plane has fallen). The three of us then jumped into our bakkie.”
Warden called the emergency services while they were on the way. When they reached the crash site, neighbours and motorists from the N3 were already there.
“There was debris all over. We didn’t go into the paddock (where the helicopter had crashed). It was very smokey.”
Warden said she noticed the tail, doors and blades of the aircraft strewn about.
“Then there was this terrific bang.”
She said another local farmer came to the scene with a water cart to extinguish the burning grass. Police and emergency services also arrived.
“It was very bad. I have asked God to erase the scene out of my mind. Somebody’s loved ones were in that crash. My heart goes out to them. It just makes one realise how precious life is.”
The South African Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa) said they have yet to determine the cause of the crash.
Witnesses claimed the helicopter broke apart in mid-air.
“The Accident and Incident Investigation team were notified of an aircraft accident and dispatched a team immediately. I was told this morning that the team has arrived at the site,” Kabelo Ledwaba, spokesperson for Sacaa said.
“We have nothing new to report at the moment. If the team had already determined the case of the accident they would have been back already,” he said.
It has also emerged that one of the specialist doctors who died was en route to another emergency after trying to save African National Congress (ANC) member and Minister in the Presidency, Jackson Mthembu's life.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told media the doctor, Kgopotso Rudolph Mononyane, had cancelled everything and made himself available to attend to the Minister, who died from Covid-19.
Netcare said they did not have any details surrounding the crash. “I am sure you will understand that this is a traumatic time for everyone at Netcare. We will issue a statement when we do have new information,” said a spokesperson.
“We appreciate the request and kind intention, however for now we are not able to share any further information. Please can you bear with us and give us a little time.”
Dr Richard Friedland, chief executive officer of Netcare, said everyone at Netcare had been left devastated by the tragedy.
“The whole of Netcare falls silent as we bow our heads in tribute, respect, love and memory of our fallen colleagues and frontline heroes who have died in the line of duty. There are no words adequate to describe our sense of profound loss and grief at this terrible time. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.
With healthcare workers under immense pressure over the last few months because of the pandemic, Friedland added Netcare has been profoundly and deeply impacted by the ongoing loss of loved ones, friends and colleagues on the frontline daily for the past year.
“Never before have we at Netcare had to face this constant barrage of pain, loss and suffering. These brave, selfless, frontline heroes were on a mercy mission...to save the life of a desperately ill patient dying of Covid-19 pneumonia.
“But as we all know, a catastrophic tragedy occurred and they died in the most devastating of accidents. This was their calling and they have answered the highest call.
“There is no greater act of humanity than to lose one’s life in attempting to rescue another. We know God uses good people to do great things....and we need not look any further than these young, talented, extraordinary individuals who embody what it means to be a hero. Every day for them was an act of courage and they were the personification of strength, compassion and grace.
“Our hearts are broken, we mourn the loss of these fallen heroes, these frontline workers who have given so selflessly, so courageously of themselves. Our hearts too are shattered for their families, children, loved ones, friends and colleagues they have left behind.”
Craig Grindell, managing director of Netcare911, said they were beyond shocked by the tragedy.
“We are profoundly saddened, and our deepest sympathies are with the families and loved ones of our colleagues aboard Netcare 1 air ambulance. We are shocked beyond words at the tragic loss of these healthcare heroes. The details surrounding the crash are not yet clear. We will however issue a further statement once more information becomes available,” he said.
Grindell also confirmed counselling was being offered to the families, colleagues and loved ones of those who died.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has also paid tribute to the victims.
“While we were still coming to terms with the untimely death of our colleague and comrade Hon Jackson Mthembu, we were shocked to learn that the cardiothoracic surgeon who assisted the emergency team with Hon Mthembu’s resuscitation, Dr Kgopotso Rudolph Mononyane, was killed in a rescue helicopter crash,” he said.
“This is a tragic loss that has robbed the country of such highly skilled professionals who were prepared to put the lives of others before their own.”
“I salute our departed colleagues and the pilot who fell in the line of duty. This country has weathered the Covid-19 storm because of the sheer dedication of professionals such as these.
“We convey our sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of our colleagues that we lost in this terrible accident.”
Netcare paid special tribute to its “fallen heroes” by holding a flypast tribute to Netcare 911 paramedics and staff at Netcare Milpark on Thursday night. Hundreds of EMS personnel joined in to pay their respects to those that lost their lives.
They also hosted a special emergency services convoy on Friday to pay tribute to those who died in the crash.
The convoy left from Netcare911 base in Pinehaven and finished at Milpark Netcare 911 base.