Some partygoers, injured when lightning struck a marquee in Pongola, were still stuck to the plastic chairs they sat on when emergency services arrived seven hours later, KwaZulu-Natal social development MEC, Meshack Radebe said on Sunday.

“They were still in a sitting position on their chairs, the plastic had burned and hardened onto their body, they were stuck. The dead were burnt beyond recognition,” Radebe told Sapa.

“Can you imagine if emergency services arrived sooner? I am sure that the two that died in hospital could have been saved... I mean, the bodies of the deceased were lying inside the marquee till 10 in the evening.”

He was referring to seven people who died in Pongola on Friday afternoon, when a marquee housing them and 71 others was struck by lightning during a Christmas party at a local crèche.

Forty of the 71 people were taken to hospital and eleven of them were discharged on Saturday.

The lightning strike killed five people instantly and two others died in hospital. Amongst the dead was a two-year-old girl.

Radebe criticised emergency service personnel saying “they took too long to arrive 1/8at 3/8 the scene”.

He said emergency services were apparently alerted at 2pm, shortly after the incident occurred, but only arrived seven hours later.

“The injured had to be transported to hospital by neighbours.”

Radebe visited some of the victims in hospital on Saturday.

“Some of them described that the incident was as if a 'big stone hit us'.

“They said it was as if a big stone hit the people on the spot, that the bolt of lightening was about the size of a soccer ball, and then there was fire.”

Some of the injured had large scars on their bodies, others sustained almost 60-percent burns, he said.

Radebe said a report about the length of time it took emergency services to arrive would be presented to the provincial cabinet on Wednesday.

At the same time, he would also establish a budget for a mass funeral to take place for the victims some time next week.

This may be fully paid for by local government.

“We are going to assist these families, most of them are in poverty, there is no way of turning our backs.”

Psychologists were dispatched to the area on Saturday.

They were also giving trauma counselling to 11 people who were discharged from Itshelejuba and Ngoma hospitals on Saturday evening.

Radebe said more of the injured were discharged on Sunday morning but he did not have the exact figures.

“All of these people need counselling.”

Those who died were included Thobisile Buthelezi, 35, Thalitha Sukazi, 44, Thembhekile Mathonsi, 20, Nondumiso Khumalo, 24, Mrs Mathenjwa, 33, Mrs Nsthangase, 40 and the two-year-old.

SA Weather Services forecaster Mark Todd told Sapa on Saturday that a marquee or a tent was not a safe structure to be under when there was a lightening storm.

“The safest place to be is inside a solid structure or building with walls or a car with the windows rolled up,” he said.

“When lightening strikes a house the electricity gets conducted around the frame of the house because it is earthed well, but a tent does not have solid walls and is not earthed well so if it is struck the electricity can go through the tent and hit people inside.”

The KwaZulu-Natal health department could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday. - Sapa