Father's agony over death of daughter, grandchildren in Kroonstad train crash

2018-01-21 05:46
Petros Thulo the father of Motshidisi Thulo who is still missing after a train she was in together with her two children collided with a truck and caught fire. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

Petros Thulo the father of Motshidisi Thulo who is still missing after a train she was in together with her two children collided with a truck and caught fire. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

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In a humble, maroon-coloured corrugated iron home on the corner of an unnamed street in Meloding, Virginia, the Thulo family’s life is at a standstill.

They lost four of their members in a train crash on January 4.

But just 45km away, life is steadily moving on as mop-up operations draw to a close where the Shosholoza Meyl passenger train crashed into an articulated truck at a level crossing near the Geneva station, between Hennenman and Kroonstad.

This is the site of one of the country’s worst railway disasters in recent history.

The Kroonstad forensic pathology service is still trying to identify the victims using DNA samples. They say the number of victims has risen from 19 to 21.

About 260 people were injured.

This week, dozens of Transnet and Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) workers clad in overalls and fluorescent vests were drilling into the ground, climbing ladders to repair the overhead power lines, moving rocks and inspecting the railway tracks.

Occasionally, a train passed the level crossing.

Four members of the same family: Motshidisi Thulo (34), her cousin Zanele Mambale (37) and Motshidisi’s children Karabo (10) and Sibongile Thulo (5) boarded the train at the Virginia station at 07:15 that Thursday. They were going to Johannesburg.

It was the last time Petros Thulo saw his daughter and grandchildren alive.

There has been no word about their whereabouts from authorities.

Motshidisi Thulo and her two children, Sibongile and Karabo who are still missing after a train they were on collided with a truck and caught fire.

Karabo Thulo's photo on a mug is the only memorabilia his grandfather Petros has, Karabo, Sibongile and their mother Motshidisi went missing after the train they were on collided with truck and caught fire near Henneman in Free State.

The family has accepted that they are among the victims who succumbed to the flames that engulfed five of the train’s derailed carriages.

They cannot complete their grieving process nor arrange funerals until official investigations have been concluded.

That could still take weeks.

Thulo and his two sons are unemployed.

He is worried about how they will afford to cover the funeral costs.

Over a week ago, forensic pathologists came to take samples of Thulo’s saliva in an effort to identify some of the 21 bodies.

“They have not been able to tell us yet if they have identified my daughter and grandchildren.

"So far, we have had no feedback,” Thulo said with a shrug.

Modiehi Thulo, a relative, confirmed that she received word from officials handling the identification process that pathologists had so far concluded five cases after matching the victims’ DNA with those of their relatives.

The train accident site near Henneman in Free State, the train collided with truck and its three coaches caught fire after derailing.

They did not disclose the names of those positively identified to the Thulos because they were not their family members.

This week, Thulo struck a hopeless figure as he stared into an empty yard, his hand resting on the handle of his front door.

“My daughter left home to search for employment and better opportunities in Johannesburg about three years ago.

"She would come home during December for the holidays. This time, she came back on the 22nd and we spent a happy time together as a family.

“She was a good child … she was happy to be home,” he lamented in Sesotho, his voice trailing off.

Thulo, who has diabetes, shook his head slowly, signalling he could not continue talking. The emotions became too overwhelming as he spoke about his daughter.

His 24-year-old son Tshidiso also struggled to put words to his emotions. “My sister’s children grew up right in front of us, you know? They were good children,” he said.

Thulo went to the scene of the crash the day after the accident and to the mortuary the day after that, but refused to see the charred remains that were shown to relatives.

“We were told those people were badly burnt and I just couldn’t go in. I didn’t have the courage. I was scared to see,” he whispered.

According to The Railway Safety Regulator’s preliminary report into the crash, the train had 18 coaches.

It was en route from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg.

It was carrying 713 passengers, including the train driver, his assistant, 14 hospitality staff, one technical staff member and six SA Police Service members.

At the time of the crash, there were 599 passengers on board because some had disembarked at the 13 stations along the route.

The truck was hauling two trailers loaded with soya beans. The train collided with the last trailer and dragged it along the railway line for about 139m.

A case of culpable homicide was opened and the truck driver was taken for a blood alcohol test. It came back negative and he was released.

Free State police spokesperson Colonel Motantsi Makhele confirmed this week that DNA testing had identified five of the 21 bodies.

The 260 were treated for moderate to serious injuries at surrounding hospitals.

“The DNA results are not all available yet. We will need those tests to be completed first and we are still waiting for other reports.

"So, we cannot release the names of the victims. I think that process will be handled by the minister [of transport],” Makhele explained.

The train driver did not want to be identified.

He recently broke his silence and was quoted as saying in a statement issued by United National Transport Union general secretary Steve Harris: “We were saved only by the grace of God. He bestowed so much mercy on us.

“We were stuck in the cabin‚ while we hooted nonstop at the truck and applied the emergency brakes.

"It was horrible. We could either jump to our deaths or wait for the impact. We had nowhere to go‚” the statement read.

On Friday, Prasa’s chief strategy officer, Sipho Sithole, said 22 families had come forward to report missing relatives. He said they would make sure that every missing family member was accounted for.

He could not say exactly when the identification of the victims would be completed.

PREVIOUS TRAIN CRASHES

- January 9 2018 – A Metrorail passenger train slams into the rear of another at the Geldenhuys station, Germiston, injuring 226 people

- February 20 2017 – Two trains on the same track, travelling in opposite directions, collide near the Rosslyn station, Pretoria. More than 100 people are injured

- June 23 2016 – 130 people are injured when two trains collide between Mobeni and Havenside, Durban

- July 17 2015 – Two passenger trains collide in Booysens, Johannesburg. Over 200 people are injured

- April 28 2015 – Two passenger trains collide at the Denver station, Johannesburg. One person is killed and about 240 are injured

- January 31 2013 – A passenger train packed with school children and rush-hour commuters slams into the rear of stationary one near the Kalafong station, Pretoria, during a train drivers’ strike. A total of 300 people are injured, 28 of them seriously

- July 13 2012 – A goods train hauling coal from Witbank to Maputo smashes into a truck carrying 44 farm workers at a controlled level crossing near Hectorspruit, Mpumalanga, killing 26 people. The truck driver is jailed for seven years for culpable homicide

- May 20 2011 – 857 people are injured, 25 seriously, in a rear-end collision in Meadowlands, Soweto

- August 28 2010 – Minibus driver Jacob Humphreys skips a queue of cars waiting at the Buttskop level crossing in Blackheath, Cape Town. Nine of the 14 children he is carrying to school are killed when a train hits the minibus. A tenth dies in hospital. Humphreys is jailed for eight years for culpable homicide

Read more on:    prasa  |  kroonstad  |  transport  |  accident

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