Tragedy hits Midmar - Search continues for missing Johannesburg businessman

2014-02-10 00:00

TRAGEDY has marred the Midmar Mile for the second time in four years, with a Johannesburg businessman still missing yesterday after taking part in Race 3 on Saturday.

Thabo van Straten (43) is presumed to have drowned. Searches on Saturday and yesterday failed to locate his body, and the search is expected to resume today, weather permitting.

Van Straten was described by his fiancée Shene Jones (34) as a strong swimmer who had competed in the Mile before.

“He finished the swim last year in a time of 34 minutes,” she said.

Jones and Van Straten had known each other for almost seven years, and were engaged only two months ago.

She waited for him at the finish on Saturday, but he never arrived.

“At first I thought I must have missed him in the crowd,” she said.

Jones waited for more than an hour and then asked the organisers if his number had come in. But there was no sign of Van Straten.

“It was very frustrating because there was no urgency about the matter,” said Jones.

She said they eventually called the hospitals in the area to check if Van Straten had been registered as a patient.

The search for his body began after racing on Saturday, and was only called off when the light diminished. It began again after yesterday’s races finished.

Some swimmers said the lifeguards appeared to be distracted and oblivious to events on the water.

One swimmer, who refused to be named, said: “During the third race, in which the man disappeared, they [lifeguards] seemed distracted. I watched an older swimmer run out of steam and start swimming on his back towards the start, right next to two of the lifeguards, who were so busy chatting to each other they did not notice him. He eventually sorted himself out and continued, while they were completely oblivious.”

Pietermaritzburg K9 Search and Rescue Unit’s Lieutenant Jack Haskins, however, said the water was well patrolled, with over 100 lifeguards and naval staff. “We have interviewed all the rescue staff and no one saw the man disappear,” he said, adding they would continue to search for as long as it takes to find the body.

He said Van Straten could have drowned for any number of reasons.

“He could have suffered a heart attack, suffered from a cramp or even been kicked in the head by another swimmer. There are no witnesses at this stage,” he said.

Midmar Mile organiser Wayne Riddin mourned the loss of another swimmer, following the death of Nico Mellet (45), who died of a heart attack in 2011.

He said all safety procedures were in place and with a veteran like Haskins on board, the organisers were well prepared.

Leon Garbade, the owner of South Coast-based contract lifesaving company Tower 13 Lifeguard Services, said the 130 guards they had on the water have taken the drowning “terribly”.

“Emotionally they are holding out, but the incident has placed a black mark on the event, which has otherwise been superb,” he said.

Garbade said they had 90 lifeguards on boards and a further 40 on boats and jetskis.

Lynne Macrae, of Durban, who swam in Race 2 on Saturday, praised the lifeguards in the water.

“When one woman called for help, the lifeguards on paddle skis went straight to her.

“Everyone I know was impressed by the lifeguards in the water.”

She pointed out that although conditions during her race were good, the wind picked up later at around 10.45 am, when conditions became very choppy.

“It was like the sea,” she said.

Macrae said that the organisers wouldn’t let some competitors, including under-13s, compete once conditions deteriorated.

The lifeguards in the water also closed their ranks to narrow the gaps between themselves, and then paddled along with swimmers.

Pieter du Toit, a “very tired swimmer” from Johannesburg, said that although he’s seen worse, this year’s Midmar Mile was tougher than last year’s. “It was not an easy race,” he said.

Du Toit said his race on Saturday was delayed by 30 minutes while the safety committee deliberated on whether to call it off. He said Race 4 only got going at about 12.45 pm and, in the end, U13s were told they couldn’t compete. Officials also advised people unable to complete the distance in less than 45 minutes on a normal day not to compete.

Du Toit said he could see lifeguards all around while in the water.

“There were lifeguards all along the route. Every time my head came up, I could see a lifeguard,” he said.

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