A night of togetherness turned to tragedy when this family’s potjie caught alight: 'There was a big bang'

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Ivan de Villiers and his son Johan Smit. (Photo: Supplied)
Ivan de Villiers and his son Johan Smit. (Photo: Supplied)

After a long week of court appearances and client consultations he was looking forward to spending the evening with his family.

Lawyer Ivan de Villiers fetched his daughter and her boyfriend from the home for the disabled where they lived and took them to his home in Wellington in the Western Cape for their regular weekend visit. They had everything planned: there was a rugby game on TV that Saturday and he was going to teach his daughter, Adri-Marie, the waltz in preparation for her home’s Valentine’s Day dance.

Nothing was going to stop them from enjoying the weekend – especially not loadshedding. There was a full schedule of blackouts ahead but who needed lights when you had a nice potjie on the go. Which is exactly what Ivan was cooking that Friday night: a delicious lamb potjie with veggies.

Adri-Marie (37) and her boyfriend, Dean Rabie (34), were each tending their own potjie. Ivan usually cooked his potjies over a small gel-fuelled fire. The gel, which is placed in a bowl, usually burns for about 40 minutes before it needs a refill. It’s the same type that caused the injuries to Pippie Kruger – the little girl who in 2011 suffered third-degree burns to 80% of her body when a fire-starter gel container exploded at a family braai (YOU, 23 August 2018).

Ivan’s get-together was in full swing. The food had just started simmering, friends had joined them and the atmosphere was festive. “But then the potjies’ flames started to sputter,” Ivan recalls.

Adri-Marie asked her dad to refill her container with gel so her potjie could keep cooking. “I added gel for her then filled up her boyfriend’s too.” Dean had been sitting across from Adri. “I was adding the gel when there was one big bang and a fireball,” Ivan recalls. “A spark must’ve shot from Dean’s flame into the gel bottle.

The gel caught alight and shot from the bottle towards Adri,” Ivan says, breaking down. “My daughter was directly in the line of fire.” And what had begun as a cosy family evening turned into a night of utter hell. The house was quiet the next day. There was no rugby on their TV, no laughter, no music.

Adri was in the ICU with serious burns to her face, neck, chest, arms and legs. Ivan’s wife, Sarie (64), had been sitting next to her and the gel seared her too. Skin was “hanging off her face like rags”, Sarie says of her daughter’s injuries. Adri’s body went into shock 10 days later and she passed away.

 (Photo: YOU)

Sarie was released after 19 days in hospital and is still trying to come to terms with what’s happened. “I miss my daughter,” she tells us. “A day before she died she said, ‘Mom my, ask Jesus to take the pain away’.” Ivan is racked with guilt about what happened although Adri didn’t blame him, he says.

“She kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, Daddy, it’s not your fault. I’m not angry with you, Daddy’. I VAN is no stranger to tragedy. “I nearly lost Adri when she was six months old,” he says. “I’m grateful I could have her for another 37 years.” Ivan, his first wife, Laetetia, and baby Adri were travelling on the N1 near Parow in Cape Town when a car hit them from behind.

“My wife died on impact. I had two crushed neck vertebrae and nearly every bone in Adri’s body was broken,” Ivan recalls. “She also sustained serious head injuries, which resulted in intellectual challenges, although she could still hold a conversation. She’s been a spastic quadriplegic ever since and had trouble walking.

“Adri was what got me through that difficult time. She needed me – it was a miracle she even survived that crash.” When Adri was five, Ivan married Sarie. “Adri called Sarie ‘Mom’ from day one and Sarie’s three sons called me Dad. We were never stepparents, they were never stepchildren,” Ivan says.

When the family moved to Wellington, Ivan opened a law practice and Adri moved into the care home, where she met Dean. They were together for six years. Dean was injured by the fireball too – his face was burnt and he spent three days in hospital. He’s back home now but misses Adri.

“Dean asked me if he could come home with me after the memorial service,” Ivan says. “He’s part of our family." He's still unsure exactly what went wrong that night, Ivan says. “I know how flammable that gel is. We do these potjiekos evenings about twice a month.

In the winter we have them inside the house with our grandkids there. I know how this stuff works and I don’t let anyone else top up the gel. I’ve read up about how to use it and the risks.” Ivan still has pink burn scars on his hands. Two friends who joined the family for the evening were burnt on their hands but fortunately could be treated and discharged later that night.

Johan Smit (39), one of Sarie’s sons, saw his sister and mother in excruciating pain in the hospital. “I was shocked when I saw my mom. Her face was full of blisters. Adri’s eyes were swollen shut. Before I left she begged me, ‘Boetie, take me with you’,” Johan says tearfully. “I visited her again the day before she died but she was sleeping. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.”

Sarie was with Adri when she died, Ivan says. “She read to her from the Bible and sang hymns until she passed away.” Johan is worried about Ivan’s state of mind. “I don’t want my dad to blame himself,” he says. “No, I don’t blame myself,” Ivan says – but in the next breath he adds, “Yes, I do. I try not to but . . . she was my child.”

For a week after the accident Ivan didn’t want to leave the house. “I couldn’t be around people,” he says. “Adri didn’t let her disability get her down. She lived life to the full. She was positive about everything.” Adri was cremated on 21 February, a week after she was supposed to waltz with Dean at the Valentine’s Day dance.

Sarie is recovering well physically but the heartache will linger forever. “A friend dreamt they saw Adri playing in heaven with other kids on a green lawn,” she says. “Heaven has gained another angel. We’ll see her again someday.”

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