AS sports equipment, bags, food and even a small teddy bear lay scattered across the bloodied tar of the R31, the close-knit community of Cradock were yesterday struggling to come to terms with a tragic accident in which 17 people were killed at the weekend.
The much-loved principal of Cradock Primary School and a 10-year-old pupil died when the school bus in which they were travelling collided with an oncoming minibus.
It is believed the minibus overtook another vehicle on a blind rise on the R61 between Graaff-Reinet and Cradock, and smashed head-on into the 60-seater school bus.
Fourteen passengers and the driver of the Mtwana Tours minibus, on its way to Mthatha from Cape Town, died. Another three passengers are in hospital in a critical condition.
According to police spokeswoman Warrant Officer Cynthia Nkamba, seven passengers were flung from the minibus. The remainder had to be extricated using the jaws of life.
Deputy Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga travelled to the Eastern Cape on Saturday night to console the grieving families.
She first stopped off at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth, where she visited those undergoing treatment. She assured their families they would receive compensation from the Road Accident Fund (RAF).
Yesterday, she travelled to Cradock, where she met the family of primary school principal Wimpie van der Merwe.
Chikunga embraced Van der Merwe’s emotional widow, Elsabe.
Van der Merwe, who would have celebrated his 52nd birthday next month, had been driving the bus at the time of the crash.
He was also a rugby coach and taught technology.
The young rugby team had been on their way to Graaff-Reinet for a sporting event.
Elsabe said it was less than an hour after she kissed her husband goodbye that she received news of the accident.
“I wish I had said more … Or convinced him not to go on the bus,” she said. “But he wanted to go with his team.”
Van der Merwe was also the primary school hostel superintendent for the past four years. His family live on the school property.
Friends and family members described him as a fun-loving person who treated everyone equally. He loved sport and trains.
Meanwhile, pupils are also mourning the death of 10-year-old Stefanus “SC” Ferreira, who died on the scene.
Stefanus had apparently moved to the front of the bus just moments before the crash because he had been feeling car sick.
Eye-witnesses said Van der Merwe had tried in vain to shield Stefanus from getting hurt.
Deputy principal Alfie Blume, who was also sitting near the front of the bus, is in a critical condition in a Bloemfontein hospital, while teachers Ray-Jean Wright and Jacques de Meillon were flown by helicopter to Greenacres Hospital in Port Elizabeth, where they are both in ICU.
Nkamba said the names of the victims travelling on the minibus could not yet be released to the public.
She said some bodies still needed to be identified and that their next-of-kin would then have to be contacted.
Addressing the Van der Merwe family yesterday morning, Chikunga said: “We know and understand what you are going through. God is with you through this difficult time of your life. Some of us have been there. We extend our sympathy.”
Chikunga assured Elsabe that the RAF would pay for all burial costs and that the officials, who were also present at the Van der Merwe home yesterday, would meet the family at a later stage to assess their claim.
Closing in prayer, Chikunga asked God to guide and comfort the family. Van der Merwe has a son and two step-children. The funeral will take place at the Dutch Reformed Church on Thursday.
The family of Stefanus asked for privacy. An aunt of the young boy said his parents were not prepared to address the media at this stage as they were deeply distraught.
Nkamba said Saturday’s crash was one of the most horrific she had seen.
“The matter is still under investigation, but it appears as if the driver of the minibus was speeding,” she said.
“He overtook another vehicle where it was not safe to do so. It was on a double line.”
Forensic experts from Port Elizabeth travelled to Cradock on Saturday to inspect the accident scene. The road was closed off for most of the day.
A special prayer service was held at the Dutch Reformed Church yesterday morning.
Chikunga said she had been at another mass funeral in Gauteng when she was informed of Saturday’s incident.
She visited the scene of the accident yesterday afternoon.
MPL Noxolo Abraham-Ntantiso, who was also at the scene, told the media: “Enough is enough. So many people are dying on our roads. We appeal to God to intervene.”
She said those who disobeyed the rules of the road needed to be jailed.
“A simple fine is obviously not doing the trick,” she added.
The chairwoman of the transport portfolio committee, Ruth Bhengu, said too many lives had been lost due to careless drivers.
Mtwana Tours could not be reached for comment.