School tragedy remembered

Angela Gillham

“I REMEMBER the girls lining up looking over the wall at school and waving goodbye to the boys. I will never forget it – they all looked so excited to go on this camp in real army trucks.”

This is how Jeanne-Marie Broadhurst remembers the day that changed the lives of hundreds of Victoria Park High School pupils, parents and teachers two decades ago.

Just hours after 46 boys set off on a camp, three of them were dead and 18 others had been injured in a horrific crash on a gravel road near Addo.

Jubilant singing turned to nightmarish anguish for the teens when the accident claimed the lives of Michael Swart, Garth Whittal and Ryan McDonald. All were 16.

Yesterday, 20 years to the day later, the accident was recalled at an emotional memorial service at the school.

The crash took place just 4km from where the pupils were meant to stay for a two-day voluntary cadet camp at the SA police training centre at Slagboom.

Travelling in convoy, one of the Samils hit a pothole and overturned. Boys in a second vehicle watched in horror as their classmates were thrown from the rolling truck onto the road and surrounding bush.

The day that many past pupils said they could remember as if it were yesterday was one that irrevocably changed their lives.

Andre Kock, who spent a number of days in hospital following the accident, said he could still remember the sheer gruesomeness of the scene and the utter chaos that followed as parents raced to three city hospitals praying their children were alive.

Graham Goosen, who was also injured, said while he remembered chaos and pain he also realised it was an event that had brought people together.

School principal Mike Vermaak, who was a teacher at the school at the time, said he had wanted the service to strike the right balance by capturing the sadness of the event while celebrating the three boys’ lives.

Vermaak said: “Garth was a busy youngster, always smiling. He was the heart and soul of my under-14 cricket team.

“Michael was very quiet and reserved – a real gentleman.

“Ryan was the tough rugger bugger that lots of other players looked up to.

“They were true Victorians.”

As many of the matric class of 1994 met for the first time in years, memories were shared with many agreeing that attending three funerals in one day rated as one of the most painful experiences of their young lives.

Memories of pupils swapping desks so the dead boys’ chairs did not remain empty, counselling sessions and girls taking turns to visit the many boys in hospital were recalled.

At the same time many remembered how some of the most unlikely boys emerged as heroes and how many boys became men within minutes.

At the accident scene, boys walked on fractured legs to help their friends while others lifted heavy materials off their bleeding classmates.

The parents of Garth Whittal and Michael Swarts attended the service and said they were pleased the school had honoured their sons.

Ryan McDonald’s parents did not attend.

A new memorial plaque is now positioned at the school gate after thieves pulled off the original brass plaque.

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