Survivor describes Storms River horror

By Time of article published Mar 27, 2000

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By David MacGregor

"Suddenly the man just gave up. He smiled at me and I shouted 'are you all right?', and then he slipped out of my grasp and fell under water."

This is how river guide Jaco Swart, 33, described his failed attempt to save one of the victims of the Storms River tubing disaster which has claimed at least seven lives, and possibly another six.

The man was clinging to Swart's tube as he battled against the effects of a 2m-wall of water which hit the party of 24 blackwater tubers going down the Storms River gorge as part of a team-building exercise.

On his hell-ride down the gorge, beyond an escape ladder known as "The Point of No Return", Swart also passed a woman and a youngster in their tube. He shouted at them to stay put, but they were out of reach.

They were probably Marie Pieters and her daughter Kiesha whose bodies were later recovered close to the river mouth.

The 2,2km river run, normally takes blackwater tubing parties down a magical ride between steep walls of rock 300m high. Some stretches are shallow enough to walk across when the water levels are low.

At about 1,8km, called "The Point of No Return", there is a wire ladder with steps which is the last escape route out of the gorge. After that it bottlenecks so narrowly that lying in a tube you can touch both sides with your hands.

But on Saturday, heavy rain upstream caused a tributary to the Storms River, the Witteklip River, to flood, transforming the normally placid ride into a seething mass of water which later spewed out the mauled and battered bodies of some of the victims.

The ill-fated party consisted of two groups, a team-building group from Engen headquarters in Port Elizabeth, and members of a prominent legal firm - Stulting, Cilliers and De Jager - along with four river guides.

Nine people managed to scramble to safety up a wire ladder and 900 wooden steps at "The Point of No Return".

Two other survivors - Swart and senior attorney Pieter Cilliers - spent 36 hours clinging to rock awaiting rescue.

Swart, whose one leg was badly mangled by a log in the water, managed to find purchase about one metre above the water on the side of the gorge, where he spent a freezing night wondering what had happened to the rest of the party.

When they were later rescued, an emotional Cilliers was able to walk but was too shattered to speak about the accident which claimed the life of his senior partners George Stulting, and possibly Bertus De Jager, who is still missing.

By contrast, Swart, who had to be pulled out of the gorge by Douw Steyn, a Cape Town mountain club member, and then put on to a stretcher, was able to recount some of his ordeal.

Swart said the flood was sudden. "A massive wall of water hit us. It was the most terrifying thing. I tried to make some of the people safe, but it was impossible...."

The dangerous rescue involved 50 people from a host of emergency services, among them the Mountain Club in Cape Town, under the instructions of Lester Coelen, and helicopter crews which helped fight the Cape fires.

Major Gees Basson of 22 Squadron flew an Oryx chopper, dangling a mountain club member from a rope, to search the gorge because it was feared too dangerous to send rescue groups down on the water.

It was they who spotted Cilliers and Swart clinging to the sides about 11am on Sunday, but they had to wait eight hours before they were rescued because the Oryx was too large to get close to them. Another chopper had to be brought in to pull them out.

Later Mark and John Collins, who finished second in the international Camel challenge last year, joined mountain rescue volunteers, police and medical personnel in the rescue after hearing about the incident on the radio. They rode the river in search of survivors but found none.

A suspension bridge at the mouth of the river, where the tubers would ordinarily have emerged unscathed, was an emotional place as family members gathered to await news of their loved ones.

For Dawid Pieters, who had not ridden the river because of a back injury, the day was doubly tragic as it claimed the lives of both his wife and daughter.

A spokesperson for Storms River Adventures who was at the scene but who declined to be named, said that 2000 people had been down the river safely this December.

But the Storms River has claimed four lives prior to this accident, since 1990.

The company said it had been checking water levels prior to the flood and two other groups had gone down safely just before this group.

In a side drama, an employee of the Storms River Adventures company, Angus Stembul, had to be rescued when he fell 18m down a cliff while trying his own rescue attempt.

On Monday, searchers were still looking for survivors, but there was scant hope of finding anyone alive.

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