Durban - The driver of the bus in which seven KwaZulu-Natal pupils died on Friday was speeding and ignored the panicked screams of the children to slow down or stop, witnesses have told the Sunday Tribune.

Seconds after the screams were ignored, the bus plunged 150m down an embankment, killing four pupils instantly. Three more succumbed to their injuries later.

At least 14 suffered critical injuries, 17 were seriously injured and 30 escaped with minor injuries.

Among those admitted to hospital were the bus driver and bus conductor. The police confirmed that the driver’s blood had been drawn for testing.

Yesterday, pupils told of their horror ordeal aboard “the bus of death” that crashed in Inanda’s Mzinyathi area, near Ngonweni Primary School.

Most said the bus was travelling at high speed just before the crash.

Speaking from King Edward Hospital, Mbalenhle Shozi, a Grade 9 pupil who suffered an arm injury, said the brakes failed.

“We could see we were going down. We were screaming and crying. Everyone was scared. I don’t know how we got out of the bus, but when I opened my eyes I saw people helping each other,” she said.

Mbalenhle said she was helped by an elderly man who called her parents.

Her mother, Nkazimulo Shozi, 36, who was at her daughter’s bedside, said: “I am still in shock, I am just glad she is alive. This has been very traumatic for us.

“My uncle is still looking for his son, he hasn’t been able to find him and many other parents are still trying to find their kids,” said Shozi.

The Sunday Tribune also spoke to Patience, 16, a patient at King Edward Hospital, who was badly injured and unable to remember much beyond the screaming. She heard glass breaking and hitting her. Then she hit her head on the seat in front of her, she thinks, and blacked out.

It also emerged yesterday that, a few kilometres before the accident took place, the bus had a breakdown. And it was here that the signs of suspected unroadworthiness became visible.

Other survivors revealed:

l The bus could not go up an incline. It was forced to stop and the driver and conductor had to fiddle with the engine.

l The engine smoked so much the children had difficulty breathing, and stuck their heads out of windows.

l The handbrake seemed faulty. The driver and conductor put bricks against the wheels to prevent it rolling down the road.

The bus is owned by Brendon’s Coach Tours, who were not listed and could not be traced.

By late yesterday, grief-stricken parents arrived at Phoenix Mortuary from Umzinto and went about the grim task of identifying their children’s bodies. Netcare spokesman Chris Botha said there had been 65 people on the bus.

The children recalled how they went from singing merrily in anticipation of a soccer and netball contest to watching helplessly as their schoolmates perished in front of them.

Botha said the children were flung from the bus as it rolled down the embankment. Stuffed toys lay scattered along the side of the mountain.

“After medics triaged the injured, they found that four children aged between 15 and 17 had died from extensive injuries. Fourteen had critical injuries, 17 were serious, and 30 had minor injuries.

Two medical helicopters were used to fly some of the critically injured to the Nkosi Albert Luthuli hospital. The others were stabilised at the scene and taken to Mahatma Gandhi , King Edward and Albert Luthuli hospitals.

Lindelani’s mother, Ntombi Mseleku, said, “If the bus driver knew there was something wrong with the bus, why did he take a chance? If he called for another bus, all these children would still be alive.”

KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson for the Department of Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, Kwanele Ncalane, said the driver has been charged with four counts of culpable homicide.

“An investigation has been instituted to determine whether the driver was reckless. It will also establish if the bus was roadworthy. If not, we will have to charge the owner.

“I promise that whoever is responsible will suffer the consequences because these are innocent people wh0 died and children at that,” he said.

The bus driver, who was admitted to eThekwini Hospital and Heart Centre, refused to speak to the Sunday Tribune yesterday, saying he was in too much pain but he said that he would be able to talk “maybe tomorrow” (Sunday).

Hospital manager Niresh Bechen said the patient was in a stable condition but could not confirm his injuries, citing patient client confidentiality

Acting metro police spokes-person Superintendent Sibo-nelo Mchunu said according to the report received, the cause of the accident was speeding, a gravel road and a sharp bend.

“The driver failed to control the bus. However, this is just an initial and general assessment of the accident,” said Mchunu.

An Ndwedwe police officer said yesterday that as far as he knew, no breathalyser test had been given to the bus driver at the scene, since he was also severely injured.

“A member of the collision unit from Durban Central who attended the scene would have taken his blood samples. We were only there to assist.

“Whether he has previous offences will be determined when he appears in court, possibly on Monday,” he said.

l Additional reporting by Nathi Olifant and Charmel Bowman.

Sunday Tribune