Man's hijack ordeal

2008-02-02 00:00

A young KZN man is lucky to be alive after he survived a terrifying hijack ordeal during which he was locked in the boot of a car for about 17 hours.

Louis van Heerden’s life-changing experience began on Sunday night, January 20, when he was hijacked as he was going to have coffee with a friend.

Van Heerden (26), of Pietermaritzburg, said that as he slowed down for an intersection in his Ford Bantam bakkie, he stopped for a second and at that moment a man jumped into his car, armed with a revolver. “He was very fast and very aggressive and screamed at me to drive.”

The man directed Van Heerden through Camps Drift to a park near the Dusi weir.

“There was a white BMW parked there with two occupants and at first I thought I could get help from them.” But he soon became aware that his nightmare was just beginning.

“The man who hijacked me told me to get out of the car. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I tried to break my key off in the ignition as I got out. I also tried to sneak my cellphone out with me, but the light came on and he saw it and took it away from me.”

Van Heerden managed to bend the key and render it useless and when the man realised this, he became more aggressive and ordered him into the boot of the BMW, taking his phone.

“When I refused, he punched me, and I started to get really nervous.”

Van Heerden was forced into the boot and the car started driving. “I tried to stay calm. It felt like we were driving on back roads. I lost track of time, but after some hours, the car stopped and the main hijacker opened the boot and told me to sms my family and tell them I was staying out for the night.”

Van Heerden, who lives with his parents, sent them an sms telling them he would be staying out for the night and added that he loved them.

His phone was taken away again and he was locked in the boot once more.

Van Heerden said that for a long period the next day the car was parked in a busy place where he could hear people speaking. “But I didn’t know if they would be friendly or not, so I waited. I could have been at Liberty Mall for all I knew.”

After a terrifying day, not knowing what his fate would be, it began to grow dark. Van Heerden could make out some light through the boot. The car started up again and he sensed it was driving very fast. “I started panicking and knew I had to get out.”

He felt his way and eventually managed to open a panel inside the boot, which he hoped would house an emergency kit, with possibly a spanner or some tool he could use to help him open the lid of the boot. “But there was no spanner, jack or anything in there.”

But what he did find concealed behind the panel was a cable that he realised must operate the boot lid, and after 10 minutes of fiddling with it, he managed to get the boot unclasped.

He then spent 10 minutes pondering his chances of survival before he made his escape.

“Suddenly, I felt the car slow down, and knew my opportunity had come. I flung open the boot and jumped out. I saw a bank at the side of road and blindly dove down it, neither knowing nor caring how far the drop was.”

It turned out that a truck had cut the BMW off on the approach to Harrismith where the road narrows, and the BMW was forced to slow right down. “I wish I could find that truck driver and thank him for cutting the BMW off because it could have saved my life,” he said with a smile.

After rolling 20 metres down the bank, Van Heerden found himself in a well-lit area near factories, and his first thought was that his attackers may have noticed his escape and came after him. “My adrenaline was pumping and I ran 50 metres into a muddy field where I waited for some time before realising that I had to make for the garages where I could find help.”

Although he was afraid to go back the way he came, he eventually conceded to himself that to get help, he had to risk facing his attackers again. “I didn’t know if they were standing at the side of the road with guns, waiting for me. I got a good look at the one who hijacked me, so I was a threat to him if I survived.”

When Van Heerden arrived at the Dry Rock BP Garage, the woman in the office there locked herself in away from him. “I don’t blame her. I was covered in mud and panicking,” he laughed.

When she realised that he was in trouble, she brought him inside, helped him call his distraught parents and the police and gave him sugar water.

In the meanwhile, his parents had discovered his car and police had surmised that it looked like a possible suicide case, preparing his family for the worst.

“They were searching for me and with the sms telling them I loved them, my car left open and unlocked and me nowhere to be found, they were looking in trees to see if I had hanged myself and were going to start diving for my body in the river.”

His relieved parents rushed to Harrismith to fetch him.

But how has this now affected Van Heerden?

He is seeing a psychologist and has been put on medication to help him through the stress.

“I am very careful now. I haven’t been out at night and I warn everyone not to go anywhere,” he says with a laugh. But he adds in a more sober manner that it has broken his trust in people too.

He said that he has been told he is suffering from post-traumatic stress. “They say it never goes away, you just learn how to live with it.”

He also advised people to install a tracking system on their cellphones and in their cars. “Tell people where you will be all the time.” And Van Heerden urges people to take even the simplest precautions. “Lock your car doors. If mine had been locked, I may have had one more second to get away.”

Van Heerden also has trouble sleeping now and when he does drop off, he often wakes up in a panic. “While in the car, I drifted off once or twice and woke up to the sheer horror of my situation. Sometimes now when I wake up I think of that terror.”

But Van Heerden is a religious person who says his faith kept him going throughout the ordeal. “Yes, I had a lot of ‘me-time’ in that boot and I prayed many times. You think you are strong, but something like this can cripple you emotionally.”

Van Heerden has heaped praise on the police for their support and assistance after the hijacking.

What to do if you are ever forced into the boot of a car

If you can’t locate the the boot cable and open the boot by jiggling it, kick out a light from the inside and stick your arm or leg through the hole and start waving. The driver won’t be able to see you, but everybody else will.

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