Lives blown to pieces: families reel from deadly Denel blast
Despite the tears and stunned disbelief, the plant was operating as normal after an explosion killed at least 8 workers
If you’re driving along the N2 just outside Somerset West, you’ll be unaware of one of the biggest munitions factories in the world just behind a thicket of trees.
On Monday afternoon a pall of smoke from a huge explosion marked the site of Rheinmetall Denel Munition, a national key point.
And on Tuesday, Macassar residents sang hymns, placed flowers and cried rivers of tears for at least eight people who are presumed to have died in the blast which pulverised one of the 400 buildings in the sprawling complex.South African and German flags flew at half-mast, straining in a strong wind which signalled an approaching Atlantic storm.
The bodies were recovered on Tuesday afternoon and would be identified, the company said.
Despite the previous day’s earth-shaking blast – which rocked suburbs up to 30km away and sent debris and smoke hundreds of feet into the air – the facility was operating as normal on Tuesday, minus one building. It was designed that way, RDM CEO Norbert Schulze told a press conference.The picture he painted of a “disintegrated building”, severely damaged blast walls, and “tremendous heat”, compounded by the fact that search crews were unable to reach the site before about 1pm yesterday because of the heat, crumbling debris and the possibility of unexploded propellant, left little hope that anyone had survived.
Yet, as the press conference ended and the politicians and union members began investigations and negotiations, there was a sense that everything had quickly returned to normal.
For the Hartzenberg family of Macassar, however, what happened at 3.30pm on Monday changed their lives forever.
Jason Hartzenberg, 21, was overjoyed when he left for work on Monday, telling his one-year-old daughter’s grandmother, Beverley January, that he was going to become a policeman.
“He just passed the entrance exam. He was very happy ... he was such a good example,” January said as she sobbed under the Rheinmetall Denel Munition sign.Hartzenberg started his shift at a propellant-mixing facility, and Schulze said he and his colleagues would have been mixing five types of propellant for 155mm artillery charges, the largest calibre in modern use, when the explosion happened.
Hartzenberg’s 18-year-old girlfriend, who is in matric, will have to raise their child alone now.
His mother heard about the explosion when she returned from hospital, where her eldest son, Enrico, had had a check-up. Two months ago, he was involved in gang violence in Macassar. According to his aunt, Marilyn Hartzenberg, although he was not part of a gang he was shot three times.“It’s a miracle that he’s alive. He used to be the breadwinner, and Jason wasn’t working. That’s why they were so happy when Jason was told to go in for a shift at the factory on Monday,” she said.
“[His mother] was just recovering from Enrico who was shot and now this happens.”
The charges manufactured in Macassar are mixed according to the needs of clients – the armies of the world, including those of the US, Europe, Asia, South America and SA.
In the 1970s and 80s the facility also helped to build SA’s atomic bombs, which used a cannon firing mechanism to send a shaft of uranium into a sleeve of uranium, causing a nuclear explosion.
Schulze told Times Select that SA is the leader in artillery ammunition production, and the facility produces shells that can hit a target 70km away. In contrast, the best US technology could manage only 35km.“I firmly believe that there will always be a need for ammunition, as long as there is a need for security,” he said.
Schulze said safety at the Macassar facility is on par with global standards, and there was no indication yet of what went wrong.
Monday’s blast was the third “incident” since Rheinmetall Denel started operating 10 years ago. In one previous incident an employee “inhaled flames” which caused his death, and there had been a leak of sulphuric acid gas in Wellington.
All the Macassar buildings were designed to contain blasts and send debris straight up into the air, he said.