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NINETEEN bodies in blue body bags lay side by side on the pavement.

On each bag hung a small white tag with a number. Body number four was the driver of the orange Putco bus which toppled over a bridge after he lost control of the vehicle as it travelled on the R551 in Verwoerd Road yesterday morning.

“The accident happened at 7.50am, according to a police officer who was driving on the R59 and saw the bus veer from the road and fly over the bridge,” said Captain Shado Mashobane, spokesman for the Vereeniging police cluster.

Fifty-five seriously injured passengers were taken to hospitals in Sebokeng and Kopanong, and two were airlifted to Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital.

The 19 dead were 13 women and six men, none of whom had been identified at the time of publication. The first was taken out of the bus at 8.15am.

By 11.58am emergency workers were fitting thick ropes around the bus to lift it and pull out the remaining bodies.

By 12.25pm the bus was upright as more emergency workers searched the murky stream.

At 12.27pm, a woman’s body was pulled from the water. Dressed in khakhi pants and a pink scarf, it was put on a stretcher. The same was done with the bodies of two men and another woman floating face down in the water.

By 12.38pm the last body was recovered.

At 12.41pm a tow truck slowly lifted the bus on to the road.

“The cause of the accident is unknown but it seems the bus was speeding,” Mashobane said.

“A case of culpable homicide will be opened as investigations into the cause of the accident continue.”

Several ambulances, two fire trucks and two vehicles from the forensic pathology services department stood at the cordoned-off scene as teams of police and emergency workers toiled until 3pm.

The spokesman for the Gauteng MEC for Community Safety, Thapelo Moilo, lamented the tragic loss of life and said a full investigation into the condition of the bus would be under way soon.

“People must stick to the speed limits. If the investigation reveals bus defects, we’ll go to (Putco) depots and take out all their unroadworthy vehicles,” he said.

Meanwhile, forensic pathologist Dr Blair Mwesiga of the Diepkloof morgue said they would be investigating the exact causes of the deaths.

“We are dealing with two things here... injuries from the impact of the accident or drowning.

“We identify people by their clothing, the valuables they had on them, photographs as well as fingerprints. This could take up to 48 hours.

“These people were dressed to go to work. Little did they know it would be the last time they would board a bus,” he said.