Shocked family members are reeling from the tragic death of a pregnant mother, her husband and their three-year-old son who have been identified as victims of the catastrophic wildfires on the Garden Route.
Formerly from Uitenhage, Madre Johnston, 33 – who was eight months pregnant – husband Tony, 34, and son Michael perished in the raging forest fires while fleeing for safety from their Sedgefield small-holding.
Adding to the devastation is the fact that the family died on little Michael’s third birthday.
Southern Cape police spokesman Captain Malcolm Pojie said their bodies had been found about 15m from their smallholding home in Elandskraal, located between Sedgefield and Karatara.
Battling tears, Madre’s grief-stricken sister, Linda Truscott, 42, said Tony and Madre had been living on the small-holding while both worked at a civil engineering firm in Knysna.
Truscott said the family had been looking forward to welcoming another little boy in only five weeks.
“We are completely destroyed. We really thought they would make it out safely.”
“We do not know what happened. “We think it was smoke inhalation, but we do not know.”
After initial reports of a fire in the area, family members had tried frantically to contact Madre and Tony.
“They belonged to a very closeknit community out there and their neighbours called us to find out if they were safe.
“We had not heard anything from them,” Truscott said.
“We tried calling, but there was no reception. Maybe the [cellphone] towers were destroyed.
“The last time Madre was on WhatsApp was around 6.32am.”
At lunchtime on Wednesday, they received the tragic news.
Tony’s cousin, Lunice Johnston, said they had loved the outdoors.
They belonged to a mountaineering club and were usually always first to respond to emergencies.
“They lived in the forest. Very isolated,” she said.
“If I were ever to be in trouble in the forest or the bush somewhere, I would have felt the safest with Tony around me because he would have got me out of there.
“He was very practical and calm. “We understand their whole area was engulfed with flames and that they tried to escape but were literally just outside their home when they were surrounded and trapped by thick smoke.
“Their home was burnt to the ground. Our family is devastated but
we know somehow we’ll get through this.”
Truscott said Tony and Madre had been high school sweethearts and had both attended Brandwag High in Uitenhage.
“She was 15 and in Std 8 [Grade 10] when he asked her out. They have been together ever since. Inseparable,” she said. “He was so much a part of our family. “Now they are all gone and all that is left is this big emptiness.”
Truscott said Tony and Madre’s families had been looking forward to spoiling Michael with presents for his third birthday.
“I cannot believe this happened on his birthday,” she said, crying.
“They had not chosen a name for the new baby yet, but Michael wanted to name him after his favourite gun, a lever action. He wanted the baby to be Lever Action Johnston.”
Truscott said Madre was the youngest of three children. There is an older brother, Johann, 43.
“There were many years between us but it felt like we were twins.”
She said Tony and Madre had been very much in love and had inspired everyone they met.
“We will miss them very much. Our families have come together now to plan the funeral. “It will be next week Thursday in Humansdorp.” Western Cape Disaster Management spokesman James-Brent Styan said nine people had died in disaster-related incidents across the province since Wednesday.
The body of another three-year-old child was found in the Welbedacht area near Knysna yesterday morning.
One person was also crushed by a wall blown over onto his Wendy house in Cape Town. And in Paarl, four people died on a farm after a lightning strike started a fire.
A man of 91 is also believed to have died of a heart attack after fleeing his home and seeking refuge in a Knysna Quays hotel.