On the morning of Monday, 25 June 2012 at 08h07, Meyerton Fire Station received a call from the Sedibeng control room, reporting a motor vehicle accident at the Verwoerd off-ramp of the R59 heading north. No further information was available at that time.
The first turnout crew was dispatched and arrived on scene five minutes later. A few bystanders were standing on the bridge, but the incident did not look that serious initially. The crew said it was eerily quiet and that visibility was bad. Mist obstructed the view as the crew began to undertake scene safety.
"Nothing could have prepared rescue crews for the enormity of the task that they faced when a bus skidded off the road and landed in an icy stream, trapping many of its 72 passengers and leaving 19 dead. Training, focus and strength from a number of dedicated rescue personnel saw men and women working in conditions that tested their mettle for hours."
When countless patients are in need of immediate attention, focus is the key approach for rescuers to save lives and limit further loss of life.
Van Staden looked over the barrier and saw a bus lying on its side in a stream some distance below. A few victims sat on top of the bus, while another three victims lay in the mud next to the bus. A member of the public was using a yellow nylon ski rope to help some of the victims up the steep embankment. Still, the scene didn’t look as serious as it turned out to be.
The crew made their way down the steep embankment and heard faint calls for help as they approached the bus. The closer they got, the louder the screams. There was, they said, “a distinct smell of death”; which the crew agree every fire fighter knows and dreads.
On reaching the bus, van Staden climbed on a piece of barrier from the bridge and looked inside. A single word reverberated in his mind: “Chaos!”
Victims were lying and standing on top of each other. Many people were trapped and needed immediate extrication.
The configuration of the bus included three-seater bunks on the right and two-seater bunks on the left. The bus had come to rest on its left side, which meant that the majority of passengers from the right landed on top of the passengers on the left side.
Van Staden radioed the Midvaal Fire control room to update them on the situation and told them to send all the ambulances they could, as well as the SAPS and Traffic Department. He also radioed the second turnout crew for assistance, which was on its way back to the station from a false alarm.
The icy water in the bus was close to a metre deep. The fire fighters’ first priority was to get the walking wounded out of the bus so that they could get urgent medical attention; then to get rescuers and medical personnel inside the bus to start extricating and stabilising victims.
The crew in the bus had the difficult task of removing the bodies of the deceased off those who were still alive, so the living wouldn’t suffocate.
One crewmember recalls hearing terrified people screaming, pleading with them, “please take me out, please take me out”. Some were able to move and the crew helped them up so that they could be pulled out of one of the open windows as more help arrived.
The second turnout crew arrived: ambulance support from Gauteng Provincial Ambulance Services, ER24 and Netcare 911 reported on scene and everyone got to work. Nobody needed to be told what to do and the rescue teams began to work like a well-oiled machine. Now on the scene, Advanced Life Support Paramedics Bronkhorst and Ramcharan prepared their equipment and set up an initial triage zone. The two paramedics then went down the embankment to help the fire fighters in the bus.
Several off-duty fire fighters arrived on scene to assist.
A ladder was pitched from the bridge onto the bus and Priority Three patients, or the “walking wounded”, were helped out of the bus. At the same time, ropes and basket stretchers were used to pull victims up the embankment.
Van Staden and his crew used the Jaws of Life to cut open the back end and roof of the bus, while Mommsen and his crew cut open the front section and roof of the bus. Mommsen explained that the reinforced steel structure between the driver section and passenger section complicated the cutting process. Cutting and removing the seat structures was intricate as the crew had to cut, move a patient, continue cutting and move the patient again. Working and manoeuvring with the heavy tools was difficult in the muddy water and restricted space.
While the two crews worked with the Jaws of Life, others helped the victims out of the bus. They immediately received medical treatment and were transported to nearby hospitals by the various ambulance services.
“The icy water was filled with blood and the crew had to step over the bodies of the deceased to reach those that were still alive. Crews had to go down on their knees in the water, fighting their way around patients that were scrambling to get out, in order to help those trapped under the seats. One terrified person had to be assisted to keep his head above the water while other crew worked to free him" van Staden said.
As soon as all the Priority Three victims were removed, the crews could start giving attention to the Priority Two - serious but not life threatening - and Priority One victims - very serious and life threatening - who were lying at the bottom of the bus. With the front, back and roof of the bus now open; there was more space for more rescuers and more medical personnel to enter the bus.
A young fire fighter explained that as the crew waded through the bus, they could feel people moving under their feet. “Who do you help first?”
Crew had to walk knee-deep in mud to remove the patients, where they could be placed in a basket stretcher attached with ropes and pulled up the embankment by rescuers. The embankment was roughly eight to ten metres high. Fire fighters from the Meyerton Fire Station were pulling the patients up, where they were further stabilised before being removed by ambulance to various hospitals.
It was at this stage inside the bus that one of the paramedics collapsed, due to dehydration and fatigue, and the crew had to assist one of their own. Fortunately it was not serious and he recovered quickly.
ER24 airlifted a Priority One patient to Baragwanath Hospital. The helicopter had to return to airlift another Priority One patient to the same hospital.
After all the injured patients had been removed from the scene, the crew went back into the bus and removed all the deceased so that they could be pronounced dead.
The teams worked for more than six long hours before they could start packing their equipment away.
All in all, of the 72 people on the bus, 53 were treated and transported to nearby hospitals by various ambulance services. These comprised 32 walking wounded patients, 18 ‘seriously injured but not life-threatening’ patients, three ‘very serious and life-threatening’ patients and 19 deceased.
A total of 23 people were trapped by the seats of the bus and needed to be cut loose by using the Jaws of Life. Drowning, blunt trauma or suffocation was the main cause of death.
A young fire fighter with two years of experience said that this was the first incident of its kind where he had to deal with this kind of pressure. He said he has learned the importance of physical fitness and the discipline of listening to, and following instructions.
Hannes Steyn, Chief Fire Officer says he is extremely proud of his crew. The off-duty fire fighters were not asked to come in – they did so of their own accord and they worked to save lives. Corné Heymans, Divisional Officer Operations says that the way in which all the personnel just did what had to be done directed the outcome of this accident and prevented further loss of life.
All the crew that were in the bus had to go for preventive vaccinations as they worked in conditions where blood and bodily fluids permeated the water. Medical personnel had to be issued with new uniforms and boots as the ones they had been using were too soiled and damaged to reuse.
It is an accident nobody wishes to see repeated.
PLEASE VOTE FOR THIS TEAM:
SMS “FOCUS” to 43020