Johannesburg - The terror aboard the train that burst into flames last week, killing 19 people, has been relived through a Joburg woman who watched helplessly as her brother burnt to death.
Last Thursday, the Shosholoza Meyl train ploughed into a truck at a level crossing between Hennenman and Kroonstad in the Free State causing the horrific deaths, as well as at least 200 injuries. The train was travelling from Port Elizabeth to Park station in Joburg.
Kelebogile Mathe, 30, was travelling to the city from Bloemfontein with her 24-year-old brother and five-year-old daughter, where the family had spent the festive season.
Mathe on Wednesday recalled the panic, screams for help and trauma after the collision occurred, leaving her brother, Gift Mathe, trapped in the passage while he was trying to retrieve their luggage as the coach they were in burst into flames.
As she held her daughter on her lap while Gift was busy bringing the bags, the young mother said she heard a loud bang when the train crashed, and then a raging fire engulfed their carriage.
She started to panic when she saw her brother being consumed by the blaze. “I realised that he was not going to make it, which was when I decided to save my daughter’s life,” an emotional Mathe recalled.
“I first shoved my daughter out of the window, and then I followed her. I was a bit scared, but all I wanted was for my daughter to be safe.”
Her daughter, who sustained a broken leg, has been released from hospital, and is in the care of her paternal grandparents.
Mathe suffered serious injuries to her back, ribs and neck She is in Joburg’s Milpark Hospital, and stressed that she was recovering well from her injuries and the emotional stress from the traumatic ordeal.
Kelebogile’s mother, Lydia, told of the harrowing task of trying to identify her son’s burnt remains. On Tuesday, Lydia, who resides in Freedom Park, Tshwane, was accompanied by officials from the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) to the Kroonstad mortuary along with other bereaved families to begin the daunting process of identifying their deceased loved ones.
She said on Wednesday that she had come to terms with the loss of her son, thanks to her Christian faith, and described the distressing setting at the mortuary as she waited to view Gift’s body.
“They took my DNA (on Tuesday). By the way things look at the moment, what is left of my son is just ash. Three more bodies arrived at the mortuary, which were recovered from under the train, but the bodies were unrecognisable, from what I saw.
“Maggots had infested the bodies and a pungent smell was clearly discernible when the corpses arrived. I made sure I had a good look because I wanted to see if there wasn’t anything from those bodies that would make me recognise my son,” the mother added.
She thanked Prasa for the assistance the family had received after the crash, including extensive counselling, saying she, her daughter and granddaughter would recover.
“I literally cried a river last Thursday when the train crashed, where I felt like I had run out of tears, saying to the Lord: ‘God, please cleanse my pain.’
“That’s how I managed to gather strength to be strong for my family. It is my role as a mother to be strong for my children,” she said.
Meanwhile, Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) officials have blamed human error after two Metrorail passenger trains collided at the Geldenhuys railway station in Germiston on Tuesday.
Briefing the media in Pretoria on Wednesday, RSR chairperson Nomusa Qunta said they had established that the cause of the collision was the manual authorisation given by train control officials.
“What happened was that a train was manually authorised to enter a platform at the station. Immediately after entering the station, the train failed as a result of a technical problem.
“As that failure was attended to, another train was authorised to enter into the same platform, which subsequently resulted in a rear-end collision,” Qunta said.
She said the trains had to be manually authorised by the control officials as the normal signalling system wasn’t available because of problems associated with signal cables.
Qunta added they had held talks with Prasa and decided to cease manual authorisation of trains with immediate effect.
At least 200 people were injured in the Germiston incident.
RSR preliminary investigations could not establish the exact cause of the Shosholoza Meyl crash.
Qunta said: “The railway line is equipped with whistle boards on either sides of the level crossing.
“The speed limit is 90km/* in the area, and it was found that the train was travelling at 78km/* .
“The truck driver tested negative for alcohol. So at the moment all we know is that five train coaches were severely burnt but we do not know what caused the fire.” A board of inquiry has been set up to establish what happened.