Neil and Janine Oelofse
HEROES emerged amid tragedy yesterday following a horrific crash outside Knysna which left 14 small children and a driver dead when their heavily overloaded school bus plunged into a river.
Rheenendal resident Brett Staegemann, who was first on the scene, hurled himself into the icy water in a desperate bid to save the drowning children.
“I jumped in and entered the bus through the back window. There were a lot of school bags on the surface of the water and I had to get those out of the way before I could dive down between the seats,” he said.
“It was pitch black down there and very cramped. I could not see anything. I felt around and reached one child, but I could not get him out because he was stuck.
“I went back up for air and when I dived down the second time, I managed to get hold of another child and pulled him or her out.
“I was shouting for the people on the side to help me and someone took the child from me through the window. Sadly, I am sure that little child did not survive.”
Staegemann, who was treated for hypothermia, said many of the young children who died had lived on the same farm road as him.
“They were such lekker kids, a real decent bunch of boys,” he said. “I wish I could have been there just one minute earlier.”
The 35-seater African Express bus was transporting 56 pupils to Rheenendal Primary School at about 8am when it plunged off a low- water bridge into the swollen Kasatdrift River, about 18km outside Knysna.
The river is normally a trickle, but yesterday it was close to bursting its banks following heavy rains the night before.
A large contingent of police, NSRI and paramedics recovered the bodies of the driver and the 14 children who drowned when they were trapped in the vehicle.
Police spokesman Captain Malcolm Pojie said the children, aged between six and 16, had been trapped when the vehicle sank front-first into the river.
Paramedics treated the surviving 44 children for injuries ranging from scrapes and bruises to suspected back and neck injuries.
Johan Luiters, who works nearby, said he arrived at the scene shortly after 8am.
“People had broken out the bus windows and many of the children had already been taken out. Two children ran away in shock, but were later found.”
ER24 spokesman Andre Visser said when they arrived at the scene only the back of the bus had been visible above the water. They found one child not breathing and without a pulse.
“We immediately started with resuscitation efforts, but to no avail as the child was later declared dead at the scene.”
He said a diving unit had been called to retrieve the bodies of the other 13 trapped children and the driver.
Hundreds of shocked relatives and friends wept quietly behind the police cordon as large numbers of emergency workers cleared the scene and salvaged the bus.
Andrew Malan and his wife Liesl said they had arrived shortly after being alerted that their daughter Heidi, 13, had been in the bus.
They said Heidi had suffered a head injury and had also swallowed a lot of water. She was admitted to the Knysna Provincial Hospital with the other survivors.
Although the media were blocked from entering the hospital, Liesl said: “Heidi told us that when the bus hit the water she tried to look out for Chameldra Bambani, our six-year-old little neighbour who always walks with her. She said she saw Chameldra losing consciousness so she slapped her in the face. When Chameldra came to, she told her to hold onto the bus window.”
Hester Kangela, whose granddaughters Nicole Maree, 10, and Leandre Kagela, 13, also survived the crash, said the girls were in shock and not speaking much.
“They are not really talking but my 10-year-old granddaughter said one of the children had been stuck in a window under the water,” she said, clutching a bag with wet school shoes and clothes.
Leni Hasly said her 14- year-old child Charlin had injured her hand as she smashed open one of the bus’s rear windows.
“My other child, Beua, 15, suffered chest injuries.
“Their injuries are not serious, but they have not been able to deal with this tragedy,” she said.
Another mother, Jeannette Blaauw, said a friend had phoned her at work to say the children had been in an accident and she had rushed to the hospital.
“My children are in shock. They don’t want to talk about what happened.”
Numerous family members on the scene said the bus had crossed the river and stopped at the top of a hill to pick up a little girl before it rolled backwards about 100m and tipped into the river.
Staegemann, however, said he often drove behind the bus on his way to work and it was more likely that the vehicle had been thrown off the road as it banked into the bend.
“There is a terrible berm on that bend and it throws your car out. This road is terrible and there have been many accidents on this bend over the river.”
The children, from the surrounding forestry areas of Goldfield, Bibbieshoek, Highway and Bramakrans were picked up every day by the driver, Pastor Taan Colin Payle, in his 60s.
Payle’s niece, Madeleine Conradie, said “Oom Taan” had retired due to ill health, but returned to service a month ago when the company struggled to find another driver. “He loved the children and they all cared for him. He was a wonderful person.” She said he often complained about “continual problems” with the bus’s brakes.
Hester Lamini, whose friends and family were on the bus, also said there had always been problems with the bus’s brakes. “The children often had to get out and walk the rest of the way to school because the bus broke down.”
Another family member, Yvonne Pieterse, said she had also heard complaints from the children about the bus breaking down and having brake problems.
African Express owner Pravin Singh said, however, that Payle had never complained to him about the brakes.
“We tried our best to keep the bus roadworthy and we have a job card showing that the brakes were renewed in March and were in good working order.”
Singh said Payle had been a reliable driver. He could not comment on allegations that the bus was overloaded.
“I am in terrible shock. My heart goes out to the families of these children.
“I spoke to Oom Taan at 7am and he said they were running late because a tree had fallen across the road during the previous night’s storm.
“I phoned my office to tell them to alert the school about the delay and shortly after that I learnt of the accident.”
Western Cape Education MEC Donald Grant said according to their records, a bus that seated 67 pupils had been approved for the route as 65 pupils were registered for the pupil transport scheme. He said his department would investigate why the 32-seater bus, usually assigned to another route, had been used for yesterday’s trip.
A number of the parents and community members, who gathered at the scene of the tragedy, said there had been “way too many” fatal accidents on the low-water bridge.
A wooden post with a number of crosses nailed to it bears testimony to the lives lost at the river bend.