Rescuers save tourists from gorge

2008-02-09 00:00

Rescue workers struggled for nearly three hours yesterday afternoon to free trapped Japanese tourists from a bus that had plunged more than 80 metres down an embankment after veering off the Durban-bound carriage way of the N3 near the Mariannhill Toll Plaza.

In what Netcare 911 spokesman Chris Botha (who was the first on the scene) described as "one of the most intense rescue operations" in his 30-year career, 45 occupants of the bus were eventually carried up the embankment by rescuers who abseiled to the wreck. No one was killed.

Botha said rescue workers "worked themselves to a standstill" in ankle-deep mud.

Because the crash site was so inaccessible, he said rescuers originally intended calling in the airforce to help remove injured passengers, but the weather made that impossible. Botha described the crash as "horrific but miraculous", saying that just eight of the 45 occupants suffered serious injuries‚ all fractures.

Botha said the 43 Japanese tourists, driver and tour guide must have had "a roller coaster ride from hell" as they plunged down the embankment, hitting large blue gum trees before coming to rest against rocks.

The most seriously injured victim is the bus driver, who has not yet been named.

Initial reports said the driver was speeding on the wet road, but it later emerged that he lost control of the bus when he tried to avoid an earlier accident.

A traumatised Pietermaritzburg resident, Alistair Campbell, who was travelling directly behind the bus , is infuriated that anyone could blame the driver who, he says, was travelling at a very reasonable speed in rainy and misty conditions with very limited visibility.

He described how two cars ahead of the bus slammed on brakes. The bus driver braked to avoid them and began skidding sideways across the highway. "I screamed because I thought I was going to go under the bus, but I missed him because he slid across the road. He hit a tree. The tree broke in half and he disappeared down the cliff."

Campbell said he realised that the accident was a chain reaction after motorists were confronted with an earlier accident. He immediately pulled over to ask RTI officials why they had made no attempt to warn motorists of the danger.

"They just looked at me," he said.

"I know what I saw. I am not going to let them blame the driver," said Campbell.

Transport Department spokeswoman Zinhle Mngomezulu said that after the earlier accident, only the fast lane was open.

Asked why officers did not warn motorists of the accident ahead, Mngomezulu said motorists should have been aware of the dangers of driving in such dangerous weather conditions in the first place.

"Why do motorists need to be warned? They have licences and they know what they should do. They should know that in wet weather they do not need to speed. They must start acting like grown-ups."

o Sharlene Packree reports that three people were killed when their bakkie rolled down a steep embankment in Westcliff, near Chatsworth, yesterday.

Fire Department divisional commander Melvin Ramlall said initial reports suggested that a train hit the car, but upon further investigation, emergency services found that the driver veered off the road and down the embankment.

It is believed the driver lost control of the vehicle. The bakkie landed next to the railway tracks.

"As a result, the occupants, two males and a female were killed. The canopy and other debris from the car landed on the tracks," he said.

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