She watched in horror as her skin melted off her arms and legs and a horrific burning sensation enveloped her body. “I saw my dress just melt. My arms were also starting to melt. I didn’t know what was happening. I felt weak and dizzy and thought I was dying,” Ethel Mopane* says. She remembers that morning like it was yesterday: a truck carrying 28 000 litres of sulphuric acid had overturned and spilt its load, contaminating a nearby river.
The toxic spill four years ago nearly cost Ethel her life – her neck, arms, buttocks and legs were covered with acid burns. “I have never seen anything melt so fast in my life,” she says, recalling how she watched her skin dissolve in front of her eyes.
After spending months in hospital and battling for years to get financial compensation for her horrific injuries, Ethel has won her claim against the Road Accident Fund (RAF). Following a recent order of the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, she will be paid an undisclosed amount in damages. She’s happy the drawn-out legal battle has come to an end but says no amount of money will erase her pain.
WHAT HAPPENED THAT DAY?
That day started out like any other Saturday for Ethel (48), a correctional services officer. She’d gone to a nearby shop to buy washing powder and as she left the shop, she spotted a friend and they chatted as she strolled to her car. “I got into my car and put the washing powder on the passenger seat. I was about to start the car when I heard a loud bang and saw the truck fall over on its side,” she says.
The truck had overturned when it went too fast around the corner of Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela streets, about 500 metres from the Nyl River in Limpopo. A clear liquid began rushing from the truck, towards her car. “It happened so fast,” she recalls.
Fearing the liquid might have been flammable and her car could catch alight, Ethel quickly got out and ran back to the shop to call her husband. “While I was running, I stepped in the liquid with my morning slippers and it splashed on my legs, my arms and almost everywhere,” she says.“I was calling my husband to come and help when I felt a burning sensation.
I didn’t know what it was. A man nearby asked if I knew what the liquid was and I said I thought it was oil. When he told me it could be acid, I ran to the river to try to wash my legs and arms, but it was too late.” Feeling dizzy and weak, she collapsed at the riverbank.
After months in hospital and two major surgeries, Ethel is still in pain and needs ongoing medical care.
MORE THAN JUST PAIN
The nightmares make it hard for Ethel to sleep. When she closes her eyes, she can see her skin melt all over again, she says. Her burns are so severe she can no longer expose her arms or legs because she’s at risk of getting skin cancer and because she cannot bear to have anyone see her scars. “I hate it when people stare at me,” she says.“I’ve always been beautiful and now all that is gone – now I just have people staring at me.” Her husband, Joseph*, compliments her daily and is grateful she’s alive.
“This whole thing has changed our entire lives,” he says. Ethel was hospitalised for three months after coming into contact with the acid. She spent the next four years in and out of court in a bid to get compensation from the trucking company, but they had declared bankruptcy after contributing towards the cost of the river clean-up, she says.
The mother of two was beginning to lose hope she would ever see justice done. “I had almost given up. But then the lawyers advised I contact the Road Accident Fund and ask them to pay out.”
The court ordered the RAF to pay her, says Jean-Paul Rudd of law firm Adams & Adams Attorneys. Judge AJ Swanepoel found Ethel’s injuries prevented her from doing her job as she is in constant pain, is unable to drive long distances and has sustained muscle damage.She also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The incident had “a devastating effect” on her life, the judge said. When the staring and gossiping became too much to bear, Ethel asked to be transferred to Witbank for work and her family sold their house and moved away from Modimolle to get a fresh start. “I was tired of being asked what happened to my arms or legs when people saw me. With strangers I only get stares and don’t need to explain myself,” she says.
Four years after her nightmare began Ethel remains in near-constant pain, despite being on a regimen of prescription painkillers.
No amount of money can take the pain away.” In the past two years, Ethel has gone under the knife several times. “I have had two major skin operations on my legs and arms. My doctor says I still need to have more operations on my arms,” she says, rubbing her hand over her arm. “The pain is unbearable at times.”
Ethel’s life changed dramatically after she was discharged from hospital. “I had been bedridden in hospital for three months. When I was discharged, I couldn’t do anything for myself. My husband cooked and cleaned.” Shortly after being discharged, her medical aid ran out and she had to pay cash for check-ups, physiotherapy and medication.
Times were tough for the family. “I survived by the grace of God. The doctors would sometimes call me in for free check-ups when we did not have the money.” Her lawyers, she explains, didn’t charge while they were working on her case, but agreed to take their payment when the case was completed. “That gave me more courage and hope we would win,” she says.The support from her husband also kept her motivated. “He would leave for work at 6am and come back to help me bath and make me breakfast. Then he would go back to work, come back to make me lunch, then go back to work and return in time for supper,” she says.
“I don’t know what I would have done without him and my sons, Thabo* and Thabang*.”Thabo is studying engineering and Thabang is a law student.“My boys suffered a lot,” she says. “There was a time when they stopped visiting me in hospital because they couldn’t handle seeing me in so much pain. I was always in bed and couldn’t move, not even to take a walk.”
*Not their real names.