‘It looks like a war zone’

2014-02-28 00:00

POLOKWANE — The driver of a tow truck who narrowly escaped being caught by the blast of an exploding truck that yesterday killed four police officers on the N1 highway said he just saw a “red cloud that looked like the atom bomb explosions in the movies”.

Giel Vermaak was driving through the Nyl toll plaza at Mokopane (Potgietersrus) just after 1 am when the explosion happened. “I saw the red cloud and then heard ‘dwa!’. That was it.”

A truck hauling a load of 95 boxes full of blasting cartridges to a mine in Zambia, exploded after a truck carrying groceries to Polokwane collided into its trailer. Highway patrol police responding to the crash were killed as they approached.

The grocery truck driver, Ian Nel (45), died. It is not year clear whether he was killed in the collision or in the blast that followed.

Three motorists were injured, while three other police officers were seriously injured in the blast. The leg of one police constable had to be amputated. Two officers and the driver of a fuel tanker who were injured by shrapnel, are being treated in the Mediclinic Limpopo. Fortunately, the tanker was empty.

Such was the force of the blast that it uprooted trees next to the road and tore apart the bodies of the victims. Yesterday afternoon police forensic investigators were still looking for body parts of the deceased in the veld.

The blast left a crater deep enough for a human to stand in and was felt about 10 km away. Shrapnel covered a 300-metre radius.

“It looks like a war zone,” said Sybrand Thysse, a workshop manager of BF Distributors, who owns the petrol tanker.

Ruan Pretorius, a trucker driving to Gauteng, said he just saw a flames and a sea of blue lights when he crested a nearby range of hills.

Trucker Willem Barwise looked at the wreckage of the truck and pointed out the entire axle was missing.

Police spokesperson Colonel Ronel Otto said the highway patrol unit had responded to the collision and were walking to the two trucks when the blasting cartridges exploded. They did not know the truck carried explosives. The driver of the truck full of explosives ran away, but was later found.

Otto said the man was co-operating with the police. He is not in custody.

Police Commissioner General Riah Phiyega and Minister Nathi Mthethwa also visited the scene yesterday with family members of the deceased officers.

Senior police officers said it was very unusual for family members to be taken to such a gruesome scene.

Phiyega said the families could find some comfort that their boys were trying to help people involved in an accident.

The N1 highway north was still closed for traffic late yesterday as the Transport Department investigated whether the correct procedures were followed in transporting explosive goods.

Chain of events

• Noordvaal truck carrying groceries collides with the rear of Zavali truck carrying detonators to Zambia on the N1 north.

• Noordvaal’s truck driver, Ian Nel, dies.

• The Zavali driver runs away.

• Motorists report the crash on the 10111 number.

• Highway patrol officers respond to the crash, park their cars and walk to the scene.

• The blasting cartridges explode. Four officers die, three more are injured.

• André Thuynsma, driving an empty fuel tanker from BF Distributors travelling south to Pretoria, is hit and seriously injured by shrapnel.

• Shrapnel damages three police vehicles and an ambulance. The vehicle was not transporting patients but the driver was lightly injured.

Sidebar 2

Highway patrol police officers who died:

W/O. L.J. Mafani (47)

Const. M.R. Moloto (38)

Const. M.L. Sithlako (37)

Const. M.J. Mahlokoane (35)

Injured

Capt. S.M. Erasmus (48)

Const. V.S. Moloto (36)

Const. T.C. Mongwe (44)

Andre Thuynsma (39) (driver of the fuel tanker).

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