Hero pilot one of seven killed

2010-07-24 00:00

CAPTAIN Wickus Zaayman (31), one of the heroes during the floods in Mozambique 10 years ago, was among seven police officers killed in a helicopter crash yesterday.

Zaayman and colleagues were flying to a crime in progress in eMalahleni (Witbank) yesterday morning when their helicopter exploded and crashed.

As a young army pilot, he was among those who rescued scores of people trapped by floodwaters in Mozambique, once going on his day off to dive in the muddy waters to save a young boy.

Yesterday, the burnt bodies of the seven police lay scattered in the dry veld, with parts of the aircraft spread over a wide area.

“It’s a black Friday,” Police Commissioner General Bheki Cele said at the scene, breaking down in tears.

Police Minister Nathi Mthetwa arrived by helicopter at the scene, where dozens of police officers combed the area. The minister hugged and comforted weeping officers.

Zaayman and his co-pilot, Warrant Officer Tinus Gouws (39), were members of the Pretoria Police Air Wing.

The others on board were all members of the national intervention unit: Colonel Percy Maduna (39), the unit commander, Warrant Officer Dirk van Aswegen (35), Warrant Officer Colin Davids (37), Sergeant Jacobus Henning (28) and Sergeant Daniël de Bruin.

They had been summoned to the scene of a robbery in progress at a Shoprite store in the town, where the robbers opened fire on local police and claimed to be holding a woman hostage.

National police spokesperson Brigadier Sally de Beer said two teams were sent to deal with the hostage situation, although it later turned out that there was no hostage.

De Beer said another helicopter landed safely with five police officers aboard.

While these police were engaged in a shoot-out with the robbers, the second helicopter exploded in the air.

The seven robbers were later captured, with one wounded.

Cele said he had just walked into the Eldorado Park police station yesterday morning when he got the report about the accident, and left immediately for the scene.

“I knew each of these officers personally,” he said, weeping.

He said the helicopter was in excellent condition, having been serviced on June 9.

The engine was recently overhauled in the U.S. and was to all intents and purposes new.

Cele said the pilot was extremely experienced, with 3 000 flight hours. He joined the police from the defence force two years ago.

Eyewitness Vuyisa Skosana (26), who lives in an informal settlement near the crash site, said she was making tea at about 8.45 am when she heard the chopper overhead.

“I went outside, and saw the helcopter in the air. It exploded and fell to the ground.”

Cordelia Gumbi (37), who also saw the crash, said she immediately phoned the fire brigade.

“People ran from all over to the scene, but we could do nothing. There were flames everywhere.”

Sapa quotes Mthethwa’s spokesperson, Zweli Mnisi, saying later: “At this stage, speculation is that the huge mist within the vicinity of the area might have contributed to the cause of this accident”.

Eurocopter, the manufacturer of the aircraft, said it has offered full technical assistance to the South African Police Force, which is investigating the accident.

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