Dramatic rescue for snakebite victim

2013-01-11 10:37

Pietermaritzburg - Precision flying by an army helicopter pilot helped save a man’s life after he was bitten by a puff adder while camping in the Drakensberg on Wednesday night.

Harro Tonsing, 57, is in a stable condition at St Anne’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. The correct reactions by his friends laid the foundation for his rescue after he was bitten on the foot while hiking in the uKhahlamba/Drakensberg Park.

“He is stable and doing well at the moment. He is under specialised care and receiving treatment,” said hospital spokesperson Shubnum Ismail.

Rescue team

After Tonsing was bitten, members in the group he was hiking with alerted the rangers of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. The rangers called the Mountain Club’s search and rescue team to assist about 16:30, just as the afternoon’s storm clouds started to form.

Rescue convener Gavin Raubenheimer said the mountain club then put together a combined rescue team with an Emergency Medical Rescue Services (EMRS) paramedic and three mountain club members. The team flew from Pietermaritzburg Airport by helicopter and arrived at 20:00, necessitating a difficult and dangerous night hoisting operation in a deep, closed-out valley at 2 300m altitude.

The mountaineers and paramedic were lowered near the cave in which Tonsing sheltered, and got him ready for a fast flight to Pietermaritzburg.

Raubenheimer praised the pilot, who had to dodge thunderstorms in both directions of the flight. “It was a successful operation which involved skilled flying by the SA Airforce.”

- The website warns people who are bitten by puff adders to first move the snake away with a stick; then to call for help; and then to keep the bite victim as still as possible. Helpers must not cut or incise the bite, nor try suck the venom out.

Puff adder venom causes severe pain, swellings, haemorrhages and nausea. Death is caused by secondary effects, like kidney failure. When the patient does not die, body tissue usually dies around the bite mark.

  • msika.bopha.9 - 2013-01-11 10:47

    Lucky to be alive. Well done to the rescue team and the man's friends.

      silenta.solly - 2013-01-11 11:02

      Well done to SANDF

      jacowium - 2013-01-11 11:28

      Big ups to everyone involved, it's such a relief to read a true good news story. @ Shelley Disregard thumb-downs on occasions such as these - it's done by little snotnosed kids who think they're so funny when they run through every article, thumbing down every comment.

      bob.mcmillen.564 - 2013-01-11 14:18

      roboman1, in general I would agree with your analysis of a Puff Adder bite, however a few years ago now, one of the snake handlers, I think it was at the Halfway House snake park, was bitten by a Puff Adder, even though anti-venom was vaccinated at the park he was pronounced dead on arrival at JHB general, to the best of my knowledge the Puff adder is responsible for the highest number of fatal snake bites in Africa, I think there are much greater wastes of tax payers money for us to worry about than responding in the fastest way possible to a potentially fatal snake bite victim.

      Spiral - 2013-01-11 14:40

      @roboman1 - & if you were in the same position...? im pretty sure you'd be singing a different tune knowing that a large portion of your muscle tissue would be dissolving away in that 24 hour time period. Some people!

      johan.fou - 2013-01-11 17:45

      @bob & Spiral & justanotherguy: Relax. roboman1 just googled puff adder and probably have never had any real experience with snakes. I've been keeping snakes for the past 20 years (since 1993), and can honestly tell you that the rescue team did a great thing here. You want to get to a medical facility as fast as possible. Whilst I agree with his Black Mamba sentiment, as well as his technical explanation of the puff adder's venom, he needs to be informed of that the human factor is not taken into consideration in his analysis. Everyone reacts differently to a snake bite...especially if it's their first time. That reaction causes certain chemical reactions within the body (not necessarily due to the poison), which can be fatal in themselves. (Think stuff like hyperventilating etc.) I can explain it in depth, but the long and short is this: Some people do die from puff adders' bites if they're not treated fast enough...and for them 24 hours...even 12 hours is way too long.

      johan.fou - 2013-01-11 17:48

      PS: Another thing he did not take into consideration is the fact that muscle tissue and nerve damage increases by the minute. Now, that being said, the climbers really should have prepared better, and geared up with medical supplies.

      britta.ribysmith - 2013-01-11 18:49

      Harro Tönsing is my uncle, so I just want to say a big thank you to everyone who helped to rescue him! And Roboman1, you'd sing a very different tune if it was you in that situation or someone you know! Also, it was a Berg Adder, not a puff adder, so this info isn't 100% correct. But in any case, the effects from this kind of bite mean that the person CAN'T walk back for miles and miles! Plus you are supposed to keep as still as possible to prevent the venom from spreading, so saying that the person should get back on their own is pretty idiotic and not feasible. It's easy to judge if you aren't affected. Rather complain about corupt and incompetent government officials who waste millions in taxpayers' money each year than about someone's life being saved!

  • cecil.currie - 2013-01-11 10:49

    Well done, I have the greatest admiration for our Air Force pilots

  • dianne.neyt - 2013-01-11 10:53

    Hats off to the rescue team and all concerned for a job well done. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

  • jeeves.eddings - 2013-01-11 10:55

    Love these rescue workers. In their minds, 10 of their own lives are worth one person's. They will put their lives on the line at any time for almost anyone. Flippin real life angels!

  • percyzn - 2013-01-11 10:56

    Lucky u mate 16:30 to 20:00, l wonder if it was a mamba ,u should've been history

      sjmanthey - 2013-01-11 12:32

      Puff Adders do not move when approached by humans. they remain still and react when stood on/provoked. Mambas, thank the heavens, are nervous and will disappear given the opportunity.

      gerald.parker.3956 - 2013-01-11 13:24

      sjmanthey sorry but you are wrong about the puff adder. Easter 2011 I nearly stood on one on a farm near Magaliesburg. I stepped back and the snake then started to move away. since I had my camera with me I tried to take a photo but the sanke kept on moving away until he got under some branches and leave that were on the ground

  • Jacques - 2013-01-11 10:59

    Give that pilot a bells! (Once he's off duty)

      fussed.anderson - 2013-01-11 15:40

      Why do you think he flew so well. because you thought he was sober?

  • tamaryn.munro - 2013-01-11 11:01

    Well done!

  • bob.small.7547 - 2013-01-11 11:02

    Great work by dedicated air force personnel! Pilot in particular!

  • boitumelo.elias.3 - 2013-01-11 11:06

    I heard the man is in very stable conditions which is good news for his friends and family. Job well done to the rescue team.

      stirrer.stirrer - 2013-01-11 11:38

      If he is in a provincial hospital, he will be in a "stable" condition: Lying on the floor on a bed of straw with shyte all around.

  • phae.rayden - 2013-01-11 11:13

    Good story but the very best thing is to read; first remove the snake with a stick. At last, people are being educated not to kill snakes. They are incredible creatures who are more keen to get away from you, than you are of them. Stop dumping your phobias on top of their little heads.

      phae.rayden - 2013-01-11 12:04

      Awesome Michelle, kudos to you for owning your fear.

  • danie.laubscher.9 - 2013-01-11 11:16

    "army helicopter pilot" The Army does not have any helicopters or pilots. It was an Airforce helicopter and pilot. Well done to everybody involved.

      ancbasher - 2013-01-11 12:12

      My point exactly - bad inaccurate reporting ...

  • jwdupreez - 2013-01-11 11:19

    Great news for the patient. It is suggested that the Witness reporter do some self study to familiarise him or her self with the facts of this report before publication.The patient would have been dead by the time the army found/trained a pilot for this mission. GOOD SHOW to the SAAF

  • kooskanmar - 2013-01-11 11:20

    "unlike the airplane, the helicopter will be used not to destroy but to save lives!" - Igor Sikorsky Inventor of the first commercial helicopter

      mzakes.matabata - 2013-01-11 12:13

      what about apache's, black hawks? all used to kill

  • johnwilliam.roberts - 2013-01-11 11:43

    to fly is heavenly to hover is divine well done blue jobs .chopper pilots 1 jet jocks 0

  • una.west.9 - 2013-01-11 11:43

    Good to read something where humans look good

  • reyhaan.hassen - 2013-01-11 11:57

    well done to the pilot and the rescue, they should at least mention his name ... #jussaying

      james.voortman.9 - 2013-01-12 19:37

      Reyhaan it is SAAF policy not to name staff involved in operations. the aircrew consists of two pilots and a flight engineer who all deserve recognition for skilled flying

  • siphiwo.maurice - 2013-01-11 12:00

    Well done, saving a life. I salute you guyz out there.

  • mlungisi.fynn - 2013-01-11 12:00

    ''first remove the snake with a stick''.Lmao 4 dayz.

  • thembinkosi.jozie - 2013-01-11 12:08

    After u have been bitten by a puffadder just move it away with a stick and then call for help.what if it bites u again while u r busy moving it away with a stick?

  • Bra Tebzaah Sibilanga - 2013-01-11 12:12

    I was also bitten by a shark.

      stirrer.stirrer - 2013-01-11 14:09

      Did you then move it away with a stick?

      Doep100 - 2013-01-11 15:17

      LOL Stirrer, You made my Friday!

  • davisto - 2013-01-11 12:17


  • bongani.nxumalo.1804 - 2013-01-11 12:26

    It's all Zumas' fault. He told the snakes to be racists and now they are biting anyone that is not black. White genocide being mobilized to the core hey!!!

  • neiljvv - 2013-01-11 12:33

    Well done SANDF

  • howard.ware.98 - 2013-01-11 12:34

    GO MSAR, great rescue and recovery. Well done to the air crew.

  • ruben.maistry - 2013-01-11 12:51

    Smart combined action by all involved.Well done. Good advice to move the snake away aftyer bitten.Well done .

  • williamjoseph.roberts - 2013-01-11 13:47

    Hello,snake senses you,snake moves away-how did the hiker get bitten?

      Doep100 - 2013-01-11 15:21

      Puffies rely on their camo and will usually lie still and hope you go away. If you don't see him and step on him, he will retaliate in the only way he knows. Either that or the guy tried to handle him.

  • richard.young.1253236 - 2013-01-11 16:20

    These air force helicopters need a proper job every now and then. Good job. Such rapid response and succesful action probably pays for itself in term,s of the goodwill it elicits from foreign tourists who know that if they fall or get lost in the mount or geet bitten by a snake, someone it prepared to save them. For we South Africans, it's a bit of an insurance policy.

  • elma.kuyler - 2013-01-11 18:21

    This man is my neighbours brother. Can you for one minute put yourselves in his or their shoes. What about if it is your immediate family member? What would you have done??? Wait and wait and wait. Money cannot buy a life. Those were experienced hikers but accidents do happen. SAAF,EMRS and KZN wildlife we salute you.

  • gavinraubenheimer - 2013-01-11 20:26

    In the KZN Drakensberg and any other Ezemvelo/KZN Wildlife park, R1.00 of each visitors entry fee goes into an emergency service fund. At the time of a rescue the flights whether by a SA Air Force aircraft or a private aircraft are paid for out of this fund. So hikers/climbers or just a person watching lions at a game reserve has paid for the costs of the actually rescue operation if they need it. Secondly on occasions the SA Air Force chooses not to recover the costs from the fund. This is beacuse the SAAF has budget to keep its air crews trained, including mountain flying at night. It is part of having a good Air Force. So we as tax payers have the choice. Either the state can spend money only training in the mountains or it can spend some money doing actual operations and saving lives. I have personally been the victim of a Puffadder bite and its not a fun thing to have. It was very nice to know that I was able to be lifted out and taken to hospital at no expence to myself. Lastly if anyone thinks that hikers should carry medicine to counter such bites you are very miss informed. Gavin Raubenheimer. Mountain Rescie Convener.

  • james.voortman.9 - 2013-01-11 20:45

    @roboman1. Your comment comes across as selfish but the concern is valid. A rescue levy of R1 per person per day is included in the entry fees to all Ezemvelo KZN Game reserves and resorts. This is used to fund rescue efforts. A detailed protocol exists for the requesting and authorization of expensive resources such as helicopters. When time is a factor or access and evacuation by other means is not feasible, use of a helicopter may be justified as it was in this case. Bear in mind that delaying the evacuation of a snakebite victim worsens the prognosis for recovery. If the victim lost a limb for example, as result of slower response, the taxpayer would be burdened with his future disability benefits, and this could exceed the costs of a helicopter rescue over time. It is not practical for hikers to carry snake-bite medication (anti venom). There are different types for different snakes and these typically need refrigeration. A high incidence of severe allergic reaction occurs so these should only be administered by medically trained people in locations where sufficient equipment for life-support is present.

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