De Doorns, Western Cape - The double-decker bus came careering down the Hex River valley outside De Doorns, the driver fighting desperately to keep control as bend after bend rushed up.
There were only two more bends to negotiate but the second-to-last bend was a hairpin and the Atlantic City Liners bus crashed into the mountainside on Friday morning.
By Friday night the death toll stood at 24 in one of the worst road accidents in South African history. Eight passengers were critically injured, 14 seriously injured and 44 others sustained minor to moderate injuries. Two of the dead were children. The bus driver was also among the dead.
Kenny Africa, provincial traffic chief, said: “Apparently the bus was coming from the Beaufort West side towards Cape Town. It is evident that halfway down the pass the driver had problems with the brakes because he went on to the arrester bed, which is used when vehicles have trouble stopping. But he went through the arrester bed down the pass.”
Dumisani Ximbi, provincial leader of the Twelve Apostles Church in Christ, said some of the women passengers had come from a national women’s prayer meeting in Secunda.
In the aftermath of the crash, church members who had followed in several smaller buses could be seen dressed in their distinctive blue skirts and white headscarves milling around the scene, comforting each other and handing out blankets to shocked survivors.
A church leader gathered some of the women and led them in prayer. Rescue workers and medical personnel battled to attend to the injured and those still trapped in the mangled wreckage. The dead were laid out on the road, the bodies covered in silver blankets. Ambulances formed a steady procession ferrying the injured in the direction of Worcester and Cape Town.
“This is the worst accident scene I have ever seen,” was the refrain from almost all those at the scene.
It took about three hours for the first of the relatives to arrive from Cape Town.
One man went to the bus and pulled from the wreckage clothes he recognised as his wife’s.
He couldn’t find her. The anguish was etched across his face as he turned to go to Worcester Hospital, hoping and praying that she was one of the injured.
Rescue and emergency vehicles snaked back along the road almost as far as the eye could see, while Air Force and Air Mercy Services helicopters buzzed overhead.
Amid the death and despair there were moments of hope and prayer as relatives waited for news of loved ones.
Two men whose wives had been travelling on the bus could only look on as medics pulled badly injured passengers out through shattered windows.
“We haven’t heard anything,” one man said. “We can only hope that they will be okay.”
A crane tried to lift the wreckage of the bus to free those still trapped underneath. Seats were protruding through some windows.
A major investigation had been launched into the cause of the bus accident by late yesterday, transport MEC Robin Carlisle said.
“Early reports from the surviving passengers indicated brake failure as the main reason for the crash,” he said.
“The Provincial Regulatory Entity will investigate the legal status of the bus, including the validity of the operating licence, and whether the certificate of fitness is still valid.”
Aneeqah Salie, Communications Officer for Atlantic Charters & Tours, said: “We at Atlantic Charters hereby extend our sincere condolences to all the families and loved ones who have been affected by today’s tragic accident. We are also deeply saddened by the loss of our dear employee, who was the driver of the vehicle involved.
“We pledge our full support to the relevant authorities in the ensuing processes which are currently under way to establish exactly what happened in today’s tragic event. Unfortunately, at this stage we cannot comment any further until the relevant processes have been completed. We will revert to you should we have further information.”