Picture: Supplied/Untu

Johannesburg - The driver of the Shosholoza Meyl train which was involved in a fatal crash which saw at least 19 people killed and 260 injured said on Tuesday those who survived were saved only by the grace of God.

"He bestowed so much mercy on us," said the driver, according to a statement from the United National Transport Union (Untu). 

Last Thursday the Shosholoza Meyl train collided with a truck between the Henneman Station and the Kroonstad Station on its way from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg after the truck driver allegedly tried to jump the railway crossing ahead of the oncoming train. 

The train had 599 passengers, 14 hospitality staff members, six police officials, one technical staff member, the train driver and his female train assistant on board when the collision occurred.

Untu general secretary Steve Harris said the train driver and the train assistant, both employees of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), were members of Untu. Harris said both had asked not to be identified as they were too traumatised to handle the media attention and had not been for the debriefing that Prasa was supposed to provide to them.

Untu said that according to the train driver, he and the train assistant had nowhere to go in the cabin of the diesel locomotive when they realised that the truck was not moving out of their way.

"We were stuck in the cabin, while we hooted non-stop at the truck and applied the emergency brakes. It was horrible. We could either jump to our deaths or wait for the impact. We had nowhere to go,” the crying train assistant told Harris.

The train driver said he did everything he could to prevent the loss of lives. "I will never forget all the emotions that went through my head. The image before we hit the carrier is burned into my brain forever," he said.

Both sustained head and neck injuries and were left badly bruised after the train carried the truck carrier for about 400 metres before the train derailed and caught alight.

According to a preliminary investigating by the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR), the speed on the line is 90 km/h, but the train was only travelling at a speed of 78 km/h at the time of the accident. The driver of the truck tested negative for alcohol after he was taken to the nearest police station.

The RSR recommended that an Independent Board of Inquiry should be established to investigate the circumstances, amongst others, why six train coaches caught alight.

Harris said that according to statistics, Shosholoza Meyl, responsible for all long distance travel, is Prasa’s safest train to travel in.

Untu once again extended their sincerest condolences to those who lost loved ones in the accident and wish all those injured a speedy recovery. The union is assisting and providing support to our members in this difficult time he said.

"This train driver and his train assistant are heroes. They did all they could to prevent this terrible tragedy caused by one drivers irrational actions," said Harris.

African News Agency/ANA