Tireless tunnel effort

2013-11-02 00:00

“MY body doesn’t belong to me anymore.”

That was the exhausted message yesterday from Lieutenant Jack Haskins after more than 24 hours of non-stop work with his crew from the Pietermaritzburg K9 Search and Rescue unit to recover the dead bodies from the Eskom Ingula water scheme tragedy that began on Thursday.

As he spoke to Weekend Witness, Haskins was still inside the tunnel that was the scene of the tragedy which claimed six lives when a working platform collapsed. Another nine men were injured but survived.

Haskins and his colleagues worked through the night in grim and difficult circumstances.

Warrant Officer Ian Cowley, Warrant Officer Michael Bennett and Sergeant Fred Brandt made up the rest of the team in the K9 unit working at the scene.

Haskins’s dog Udain was the canine member of the team.

The Ingula plant, which straddles the KwaZulu-Natal and Free State border, is a R27 billion hydro-electric plant designed to alleviate peak domestic electricity demand when it comes on stream next year.

The tragedy has led to work stopping at Eskom construction sites across the country.

Haskins said when they arrived at the scene on Thursday morning, his rescue team had been able to drive into the tunnel shaft some way before climbing down a stepladder.

“We then used a mono-rail track and slid most of the way down on our bottoms. It was pitch dark, greasy and slippery.”

Slipping and sliding on the approximately 30° slope, the team spent the day on Thursday at around 800 metres down, locating the bodies of the six workers who died.

“It’s not nice,” said a weary Haskins, speaking to Weekend Witness from inside the tunnel yesterday.

Once the bodies had been located and bagged, they began the difficult task of hoisting the dead up to ground level.

Haskins said they used over 500 metres of rope to carefully haul the bodies out.

The K9 team was assisted by the proto teams from Eskom, many of them Filippino contract workers. The teams worked non-stop to complete the sad task.

One version of what transpired in the tunnel described a platform on the gantry framework, weighing about eight tons, coming loose and sliding down the incline, taking everything in its path with it.

The mangled frame was reduced to a tangled mesh of pipes at the bottom of the steep incline.

One of the bodies was recovered right at the bottom, with the assistance of the sniffer dog. The rest of the dead were found in the tunnel.

“We recovered and bagged the bodies on Thursday and today [Friday] we are bringing them out.”

Haskins said the injured had been removed by paramedics before they arrived at the scene.

He described the incident as a “freak accident” and said it appeared there were excellent safety measures inside the tunnel.

Haskins said they had stayed underground until 8 pm on Thursday night when they had emerged to plot the rest of the mission and brief others helping at the scene.

They then went back into the shaft at 4.30 am yesterday morning and were getting ready to emerge at 2.30 pm. In total, the team worked a 36-hour shift.

He said although it was dark inside the tunnel, and the working conditions were tough, he and his team had not been in any danger.

He said there was a good supply of fresh air thanks to the big ventilation shafts.

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