Kroonstad train crash: 'Screams echoed from the carriages'

Johannesburg - "Every time it went quiet, I thought, 'thank God it's over', but then someone started screaming again."

That is how Dewald Malan remembers Thursday morning's tragedy when at least 18 passengers burnt to death in a train accident outside Hennenman, in the Free State, Netwerk24 reported.  

A Klerksdorp truck driver drove his vehicle onto the railway crossing near the Geneva station between Hennenman and Kroonstad at about 09:00 and a Shosholaza Meyl passenger train on its way from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg ploughed into it.  

Malan and his employer, Willie du Preez, were having tea when they heard the train’s warning hooter sound.

Seconds later there was a loud bang. 

"I immediately knew the train had hit something," Du Preez told Netwerk24. "We raced to the railway line."

Du Preez's farm house is about 100m from the railway line. A thick cloud of dust hung over the scene and there was a stampede as people tried to get out of the carriages.

The locomotive and front carriages had derailed.

Three people's bodies were found in the corner of one train carriage. Police were investigating the scene. (Alet van der Walt, Netwerk24)

"About 10 minutes after the crash, the fire began. The first flames were right behind the locomotive and then it spread to the other carriages which had derailed," Du Preez said.

The hundreds of passengers who had been standing in the tar road, apparently thought the train was going to explode and ran to hide behind Du Preez' concrete fence.

"If only we have been faster, we could have extinguished the fire," Du Preez said.

"There were people trapped in the front carriages which had derailed. Some of the seats were so badly mangled that the people couldn't get out," added Malan.   

Du Preez's workers ran back to collect fire extinguishers and the farm’s firefighting equipment.

"At that stage, there was no-one else there," said the two men.

Theuns Otto, who also works for Du Preez, and some others climbed into the burning carriages to try and rescue some of the people. Using a jack, they managed to force two seats apart and rescue someone.

An elderly woman was stuck so badly that they couldn’t move her. Otto stared into her eyes, but couldn't do anything for her.

"She just asked about her children," said Malan.

Passengers travelling from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg were stranded for more than four hours between Hennenman and Kroonstand after a horrific train crash. (Mlungisi Louw, Netwerk24)

Otto himself didn’t want to talk about the incident

The heat and smoke from burning rubber spread fast and was so bad that the men no longer could go into the carriages to try to help those trapped inside.

Screams echoed from the carriages as the flames engulfed everything, Malan and Du Preez told Netwerk24.   

"It was so bad that at times I just held my head," said Du Preez. "Some of my workers said they couldn't sleep on Thursday night."

Jan van der Merwe, a Hennenman businessman, took the first two passengers – a young boy and an elderly man – to the Kroonstad provincial hospital.

Van der Merwe lauded Du Preez and his workers, but was disgusted by motorists who, their lights flashing, bore down on the chaotic scene and wanted to plough through the crowd

Du Preez's wife, Judy, says some of the panicked women threw their babies from the train through the open windows. Some of the babies were just weeks old.

Judy and her daughter, Elana van Tonder, cared for the mothers and babies and distributed nappies and bottles from Judy's own daughter. The soot-covered babies were bathed and fed, said Elana. She added that she managed to use her own daughter’s nappies, bottles and food to help the stranded people.

JP van der Gryp and other farm workers made sure that everyone had water to drink. Workers kept on taking water to the scene by the bucketful.

Farmers' wives and Hennenman residents also helped provide water, while two supermarkets donated food. 

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