Prayers for safe trip broken by fatal train crash
Survivors describe the scenes after three people died in a train accident in Pretoria on Tuesday
A joyous Velli Jente had just stepped off his Pretoria-bound train when another ploughed into the back of it, trapping scores of his fellow praying congregants inside.
Moments before – as he does every day – Jente had been standing in carriage two of Train 08, singing with his fellow Apostolic churchgoers, praising the Lord for the journey to be safe.
Although the Marabastad-bound train had been delayed in its departure, the more than 100 congregants were happy. It was the first time they were all together for the year, having returned from holiday.
None could have foreseen that a suspected signal fault would, an hour later, cause another Pretoria-bound train to career into the back of their carriage and train, which was delayed at Mountain View train station.
The crash left three people dead and over 600 injured, with several of those 11 critically injured having to be airlifted to hospital. The impact was so severe that emergency personnel and police had to use thermal imaging cameras and sniffer dogs to search for survivors and the dead trapped inside the mangled carriages.
Jente, speaking to Times Select hours after the accident, said he had just stepped off the train when the crash occurred.
“I was happy. I was singing."
His joy quickly turned into terror when he heard hooting, a loud bang and then people screaming.
“It was chaos. People were on the railway line. My friends were crying for help. It was so scary.”
Jente, whose usual stop is the Mountain View train station, immediately ran to help.
“I could see the dead trapped between the carriages. We tried to help them but there was nothing we could do.”
He said two of his friends, who are also congregants, were badly injured.
“It’s a miracle I am alive. For more than 20 years we have held this service, always on this train and always in carriage two. On different days we hold different services, but they all involve prayers for us to be safe while travelling to work.
“There are always over 100 of us in the carriage, with many standing in the passage because the carriage is so full.”
Fellow congregant Sylvia Ngobeni, 34, who escaped with minor injuries, said when people heard the approaching train hooting they tried to get off as quickly as they could.
“There was chaos. I remained seated in my usual place in carriage two as there was no way out of the door.”
She said Tuesday’s service had been extra special because congregants had returned from their holidays.
“This makes me appreciate life even more. I just saw how easy it for someone to lose their life. The three who died didn’t know they would not be alive at this moment. I could be one of them. I just thank God for coming out alive.”
Tshwane Emergency Services spokesperson Charles Mabaso said given the extent of the wreckage they had had to use sniffer dogs and thermal imaging cameras to determine how many passengers were killed or trapped.
“Visually we had sight of two of the deceased who were trapped in one carriage, but to ensure we were not missing anyone we sent in the dogs and used technical equipment.”
He said two men and a woman were killed.
“The woman died shortly after she arrived at Steve Biko Academic Hospital.”
Mabaso said 11 people were critically injured in the crash, while 62 sustained serious injuries and 545 slight injuries.
He said the operation had been highly technical and difficult in terms of the number of patients.
“There was a lot of panic from the patients.”
Ruan Heyns, managing director of the Community Emergency Response Team, who himself rescued 10 people, said they responded after they received calls for additional medical support.
“The scene was chaotic. We extracted passengers from some of the derailed coaches. Fortunately those that we assisted were not too badly injured.”
Dr Neville Vlok, chief medical officer of Halo Aviation, whose helicopters airlifted two critically injured patients to hospital, said one of those airlifted had been a woman who was trapped in the wreckage for some time.
“She was airlifted to Steve Biko Academic Hospital. The second patient was a man who we airlifted to Johannesburg’s Charlotte Maxeke Hospital with severe injuries to his legs.”
Metrorail spokesperson Lillian Mofokeng said the trains were both travelling on the same line towards Pretoria from Mabopane.
“A board of inquiry will be held to determine the cause of the accident.”
Last year Prasa narrowly avoided having its safety permit suspended by the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) following two deadly train accidents.
In August the RSR said it was “of the opinion that Prasa cannot demonstrate that it has the ability, commitment and resources to properly assess and effectively control the risks to assets and safety of its customers and staff …”
RSR spokesperson Madelein WIlliams told Times Select it was too early to comment on the cause of the latest crash and whether it was related to safety issues.
She said last year’s push for the suspension of Prasa's safety permit, which was stopped by a court order, was intended to force Prasa to put in place proper plans to manage the safety risks.
Tshwane mayor Solly Mismanga, speaking from the accident scene, described the section of railway line where the accident occurred as a notorious problem.
“We are asking Prasa to pull up their socks and make sure they get outdated signals in order.”