The small Free State road next to the railway line is lined with police vehicles‚ ambulances and fire trucks‚ a police cordon separating stranded passengers from the burnt out and mangled wreckage of eight train carriages piled over the tracks.
A small child is taken from one of at least six buses brought in to transport passengers to an ambulance – apparently a victim of heatstroke.
Four hours after the Shosholoza Meyl smashed into a truck at a low level crossing near Hennenman‚ accident investigators are hard at work sifting through the debris‚ trying to determine the cause of the crash.
So far‚ according to Free State health department officials‚ at least 20 people have been declared dead. The number may rise, however‚ amid conflicting reports about the death toll from the scene.
Free State health department spokesman Mondli Mvambi confirmed that at least 20 bodies had been recovered.
“This number will increase because the passengers in three carriages have burnt beyond recognition. The search and rescue operation in these carriages is still ongoing‚” he said.
There have been conflicting reports about the death toll from officials at the scene‚ with some putting the number at about 12 so far.
While it is not yet clear how‚ a small car was also involved in the accident.
One passenger told TimesLIVE the train‚ which departed from Port Elizabeth bound for Johannesburg on Wednesday afternoon‚ was blowing its horn long before the jarring impact.
Video footage shows a scene shrouded in smoke‚ the wrecked train looming in the background‚ as passengers help each other move away from the heat of the flames.
Mthuthuzeli Swartz‚ the acting CEO of Prasa Rail who rushed to the scene‚ explained that the accident was caused by a truck that did not stop at the crossing. He could only confirm six deaths when speaking to TimesLIVE.
Rescuers are still combing the wreckage for bodies.
According to Swartz‚ 713 passengers were booked on the train. A total of 254 were injured, of which four were critical‚ 23 in a serious condition and the remainder treated for minor injuries.
A statement issued by Prasa, however, said 429 passengers had been onboard.
Swartz also said food and water was arranged for the passengers who would be transported by bus to their destination. The buses departed shortly thereafter.
Transport Minister Joe Mswanganyi was expected to arrive at the accident scene later on Thursday.
Tiaan Esterhuizen‚ who was returning to Gauteng from his holiday with eight family members‚ told TimesLIVE that he was having breakfast in the restaurant car when he felt a massive jerk and heard screams.
Unbeknown to him at the time‚ the train had collided with a truck and a car.
“I rushed back to my wife‚ who was quite far back on the train. She was with our small baby but fortunately only the luggage had fallen off the racks and she had managed to cover him with her body‚” he said.
Esterhuizen then gathered his family and disembarked.
“I saw around 12 cars on their side and one was already burning. We heard some women screaming when we came closer, so a few of us climbed over the cars to investigate.”
He was greeted by a horrific scene.
Three women were trapped by the mangled wreckage of the train carriage‚ unable to move.
“Two of the women were sort of on top of each other. Another was further back. Her legs were trapped.”
One of the women was shouting that there was a baby inside also.
“We searched but could not find the child‚” he said.
By that time the flames had become so fierce‚ he and the others were forced to retreat.
“We used some fire extinguishers the police had‚ but it didn’t work. I am quite sure those women burned to death‚” he said. “It was a terrible‚ terrible experience.”