‘They never had a chance’
A grandmother’s heartrending screams for help in a desperate last call to her grandson as the flames devoured her home.
A frantic dash by her sons to save her and their father foiled by a wall of fire and police who held them back for their own safety.
This is the harrowing picture that emerged following the tragic death of an elderly Thornhill couple, trapped by a runaway fire that changed direction suddenly and was upon them within the blink of an eye.
Walter van der Riet, 73, and his wife, Myrna, 72, were trapped after the fire tore through their farm and the garage roof collapsed on their car.
Myrna was found dead several metres from the house, near to the garage.
Just metres from her, Walter was alive but badly burnt and struggling to breathe. He died at 5am yesterday. Devastated family members wandered around the Langlaagte farm yesterday, surveying the damage.
The fire started earlier in the week and had spread to Rocklands, Lady Slipper, Van Stadens and the Thornhill area by the weekend.
The flames were fuelled by Saturday’s strong winds, with several farms destroyed.
Firefighters also battled fires in Greenbushes, Barcelona, St Albans, Sardinia Bay, Schoenmakerskop and Bushbuckridge throughout the weekend.
The Van der Riets’ oncelush farm, surrounded by a forest of large trees, was completely destroyed, with trees and logs still smouldering on the farm yesterday.
“It was absolute chaos,” their son, Wayne, 52, said.
“We live on a farm across the road [from them] and as soon as the wind changed direction [on Saturday afternoon], the fire came at one hell of a speed towards our farm.
“It destroyed anything in its way. Within seconds, the fire was on our house and we were forced to evacuate.
“We managed to get out of our place and went straight to my parents’ house, but the police stopped us in the road.
“They held us back while we were trying to get through to save them.
“It was a wall of fire, the scariest thing I have ever seen. It did not stop for anything, destroying anything and everything in its path.
“It was a sight you have to see to believe.”
Wayne said his brothers, Garth and Carl, managed to go via a back route leading to their parents’ farmhouse.
“My brothers got there and found my mother on the ground, she had passed away.
“My father was close to her, barely breathing,” he said.
“The smoke was so thick you could not see anything.
“Eventually, once the fire died down a bit, the ambulance and fire department got through and took him away.
“It is devastating, I don’t even have words for this.”
The winds uprooted massive trees, blocking the driveway to and from the house.
“If you look at the aftermath, you realise they never had a chance,” a shattered Wayne said.
“The roads were blocked, the car tyres melted and they were surrounded by fire.
“When the wind changed, the fire came straight for us.
“I would have been prepared to run into it and take my chances. It is better than having to bury both your parents on the same day.”
Wayne’s distraught son, Josh, 26, said Myrna had called him on his cellphone as the fire gutted the house.
“She was screaming for us to come and help.
“We were on the way but we just could not get to them.
“The more we told the police we needed to get through, the more they kept us back.”
Josh said there were signs at the house of how the tragedy unfolded.
“She [Myrna] would not leave without her animals.
“The bird cage was already in the car when the garage roof collapsed [and] the car was crushed.
“There are drag marks where it looks like he [Walter] tried to drag her towards safety, but could not.
“He then tried to crawl to safety but the smoke and heat must have got to him.”
Attached to the house is a workshop where Walter used to repair machines and cars.
The tyres of two vehicles and a tractor, and parts of their bodywork, were melted by the intensity of the fire.
“To burn the metal alloy car rims to liquid shows just how hot the fire must have been,” Josh said.
South African weather forecaster Tennielle Ah Shene said strong winds brought by cold fronts could be expected in Nelson Mandela Bay for the next few days. No rainfall was expected. She said light to moderate north-westerly winds could be expected today, but these would change to southwesterly winds of about 60km/h in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the municipality is facing a water shortage after three treatment plants went offline on Saturday.
Mayoral committee member Annette Lovemore said: “The knock-on effect of the fire is now seriously affecting the water supply.”
She said power was restored to the Elandsjagt and Churchill plants but the Loerie plant would be down until tomorrow.
“Not being able to treat water at the three plants [on Saturday] has put the water supply in a critical state,” Lovemore said.
“All bulk supply reservoirs are low. The water team is busy rerouting water to balance the water to all areas.
– Additional reporting by Nomazima Nkosia