Janine and Neil Oelofse
NEIL Sharrocks was on his way back to Knysna after dropping his workers off in Rheenendal when he rounded a sharp bend and saw a woman frantically waving her arms. She told him there had been a terrible accident.
Only two minutes earlier, the 32- seater African Express bus carrying 56 school children had plunged into the Kasatdrift River.
“I stopped on the bridge and immediately jumped into the water. I didn’t think, I didn’t even stop to take my wallet out of my pocket. My fatherly instincts just took over,” Sharrocks recalled yesterday.
“There was no exit window and I pulled one of the small side windows open. I was standing on the bus’s tyre and it was sinking into the water. I started to yank children out of the window, then another chap and a woman came to help me and I passed children to them.
“The man was eventually swimming in the river to get the children and the woman was leaning over from the bank to take the children from me. I’d pass one to him and then the next one to her.”
Sharrocks said he had spent 45 minutes pulling children, some with their school bags still on their backs, out of the bus as it steadily sank into the murky water.
“The children were all trying to get out of the hole in the window at the same time. It was terrible. They were screaming ‘Help me, help me’. They had mud all over their faces.
“I don’t know where I got the strength from, but I just kept grabbing them around the chest and yanking them out of there. You can’t believe the screaming.
“Parents were also screaming from the side of the bridge because they could see the bus was sinking into the river.”
Sharrocks said he had eventually pulled the 45th child out, but it appeared as if the boy had died. He said his head had been trapped in a window and it appeared he had a broken neck. After that he could not see any more children and left.
“I was soaked and just took my clothes off right there, wrung them out and drove home to have a hot shower because I was absolutely freezing.
“I am no hero, it was just that my instincts as a father took over and the adrenalin gave me the strength to get those children out. I just jumped in and started pulling them out.”
Hester Kangela said her granddaughter, Nicole Marees, 10, had told her she held her breath for as long as she could, but when she was about to give up, she saw a hand and grabbed it as she was pulled to safety.
A grateful Liezl Malan said her daughter, Heidi, 13, had slapped her little friend when it appeared as if the child would lose consciousness. She told the little girl to cling to the side of the window and then they were saved by a man who pulled them through. Other children also told their parents about the man who had pulled them out of the bus.
Brett Staegemann, who also arrived on the scene shortly after the accident, said he had dived into the bus to try to find more children.
He said it had been dark and cramped underwater and he first had to move a number of school bags out of the way. The first child he found was trapped.
When he dived down again, he found a little boy but he was no longer conscious. “Sadly, I am sure that little child did not survive.”
Staegemann said he too did not want to be labelled a hero. “It was a terrible thing,” he said.