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‘It was terrible’ says Kommetjie resident who witnessed SA Navy submarine tragedy

A local resident from Kommetjie thought it was a normal naval exercise and took photographs as the submarine could be seen from his home. Picture: Chris Binnington

A local resident from Kommetjie thought it was a normal naval exercise and took photographs as the submarine could be seen from his home. Picture: Chris Binnington

Published Sep 21, 2023


What she thought was a rare sight would soon turn into a tragic event for a resident of Kommetjie just having coffee with a friend at her home.

On Wednesday afternoon, the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and a range of other emergency medical personnel rushed to Kommetjie in Cape Town after reports of naval mariners having difficulty in the water were reported.

By the evening, NSRI spokesperson Craig Lambinon confirmed the death of three mariners, five other mariners were rescued and rushed to hospital.

Linda Ash, a former member of the navy who stays along the mountain of the lighthouse, witnessed the entire scene where a tragedy would grip the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Lieutenant Commander Gillian Elizabeth Hector, the first woman on the continent to navigate a submarine, also died on Wednesday. Picture: Facebook/Gillian Mallouw

On Thursday, the SANDF confirmed three of its members on board SAS Manthatisi had tragically died.

The deceased were identified as Lieutenant Commander Gillian Elizabeth Hector (Executive Officer), Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa (Coxswain), and Warrant Officer Class One Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela (Coxswain under training).

Hector was the continent's first woman to navigate a submarine.

Ash told IOL they don’t often see naval submarines moving along their side and posted in on her local neighbourhood group as she was having coffee with a friend.

“Probably half an hour later, they came back with a helicopter and sort of hovered in front of my house just off the lighthouse, and they started doing an exercise. The sea was hectic.

A local resident from Kommetjie thought it was a normal naval exercise and took photographs as the submarine could be seen from his home. Picture: Chris Binnington

“The waves were big. Unfortunately, where they were doing it, I know there is a reef out there, and I know big waves come out there, and just suddenly it will happen.

“I was on my deck by myself, and I saw everybody on the foredeck of the sub and the helicopter trying to lower someone off or lower someone up. I couldn’t really see, but it was a bucket seat coming towards the men on the foredeck. I was thinking the water was coming over the sub, how are they standing on it and not being washed off?" Ash said.

She said she asked her son if the mariners were wearing harnesses because it was ridiculous how they could remain on the deck of the vessel.

Ash said her words were barely out of her mouth when a big wave came. At the time, the hovering helicopter was pulling up the seat, and all she could see were feet dangling.

She was under the impression that they had done what they had set out to do.

“That’s when the wave came, and suddenly there was no one on the deck. I thought there was a man overboard. I immediately put it on our group. Someone who was also watching it alerted our NSRI.

“Our NSRI guys were unbelievable. It wasn’t even five minutes, and they were out at sea. I could see the sub was slowing down. The helicopter was hovering above the sub, and it was moving towards Simon's Town.

“I kept watching it. There was lots of commotion next to the submarine. It wasn’t a couple of minutes later, and emergency vehicles were arriving at our slipway,” Ash said.

She was in the Navy for 20 years and had trained divers during her tenure, and her husband was involved with the NSRI, which prompted the concerned woman to jump into her car and find out what exactly she was witnessing.

“When I got there, the guys that were rescued were sitting on the pavement. It was terrible. Two deceased were lying there. They were sitting in their wet clothing with a blanket, but CMR was so busy trying to revive the third member that obviously there were a lot of people around.

“I spoke to the CMR lady, and I said I will fetch clothes for these guys. By the time I got there (after fetching the clothing), they were in the ambulance. I got in the ambulance; obviously, they were distraught. They got out of their wet clothes and got dressed.

“I asked if they wanted to phone their families; those who wanted to phone, phoned their wives. I just sat with them. Tried to console them. When they heard two of their shipmates passed away, they were super distressed. The ambulance took them away,” Ash painfully recalled.

Another Kommetjie resident, Chris Binnington, a former professional diver, also observed the submarine, but said he was not as glued into the happening.

He was of the view a naval exercise was under way.

Binnington said he had snapped some photographs of the vessel and soon retreated back into his study, where he was working.

However, when he heard sirens, he re-emerged and saw that the NSRI were deploying a rescue craft from the local slipway.

IOL previously reported that the SANDF said the SA Navy submarine SAS Manthatisi was en route to Cape Town and was conducting a vertical transfer using the SA Air Force Maritime Lynx helicopter.

“The VERTREP evolution was immediately cancelled, and efforts were launched to recover the members. A surface swimmer was dispatched from the helicopter to assist with the rescue.

“Unfortunately, the recovery operation was negatively affected by rough sea conditions,” the SANDF said.

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