South Africa Coach Crash: They came to a hairpin bend, and then the brakes failed

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The Independent Online
IT was the 14th day of a 17-day trip, and the group of 34 British tourists and three tour guides were returning from a trip to a South African game reserve through Mpumalanga, a stretch of bush renowned for its natural beauty and steep, twisting roads. It was here where the tourists - all undoubtedly with their minds on the natural wonders they had witnessed in the last few days - fell victim to one of these perilous roads when tragedy struck.

The Sabi Sabi game reserve on the western edge of South Africa's Kruger Park is famous for huge tracts of unfenced land where animals are able to roam freely. It attracts thousands of tourists every year have the chance to catch a glimpse of Africa's famous wildlife. For most people such a visit represents the trip of a lifetime.

And so it should have been for the group of elderly British tourists returning to Pretoria yesterday morning. Instead it ended in a scene of carnage that stunned rescuers.Even the fate of the victims who survived the initial impact hung in the balance last night, due largely to the nature of their injuries and their advanced years.

The excursion was just one element of a luxury tour, organised by Thomas Cook and costing pounds 2,495, that took in the highlights of the so-called rainbow republic, including the magical Garden Route, sophisticated Cape Town and the pounding beaches of Durban.

"As you tune into the natural world of sight, sound and smell, patience will be rewarded with the unexpected thrill of a truly African experience," says the tour note.

While the Zulu name Mpumalanga translates into English as "land of the rising sun", the nearest town, Lydenburg, means, perhaps more suitably, "place of suffering" in Afrikaans.

Exactly what went wrong as the Springbok Atlas coach descended Long Tom Pass yesterday at 11.20am local time (12.12BST) remained unclear last night, though it seems the brakes on the luxury vehicle failed as it turned a tight bend. But whatever the cause of the accident, the outcome in all its horror was instantly obvious to those who rushed to the scene.

"It was one of the most horrific stories I have covered in 25 years of journalism," said Quentin Loots, editor of the local newspaper, the Lydenburg News. "There were bodies strewn all over the place, pieces of human tissue stuck to rocks and people's personal belongings flung across a wide area," Mr Loots said. "The area where debris had been strewn was around 75 yards long and 20 yards wide. One of the bodies had been flung almost 50 yards from the bus itself. We found a group booking form for a hotel in Sabie for the night before, everything was covered in blood and diesel."

By the time Mr Letts had arrived at the scene, the coach - its roof sheared off after it apparently turned over on the road - had landed in a field. Amid the chaos, he was able to speak to the driver, injured and hysterical. "He couldn't give me his name because he was incoherent and in a terrible state of shock. He kept on repeating, `The brakes failed, the brakes failed', and he complained about the sun in his eyes."

Fanus van Eck, chief of public safety in Lydenburg, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene, added: "It was horrible, bodies were lying on top of each other and next to each other. I couldn't believe what I saw. Most of the bodies were crushed to death.

"When I was tending to the first person on the scene, I saw somebody in dire need for help and I reacted. She cried out to me for help. It was bad.

"I spoke to her to calm her down. But she wouldn't listen to me because she was very confused and she was in a lot of pain. On my arrival it was total chaos. The bus is a total wreck. There were only dead bodies lying around. Those who were alive were badly injured. This is an international disaster."

The survivors, some critically injured, were rushed to the hospital at Lydenburg before being transferred by air ambulance to larger hospitals at Nelspruit and Pretoria.

A spokeswoman for Lydenburg hospital, Kathy Olivier, said: "There are nine people here now. Two of them are very serious and are going to be moved to intensive care at a larger hospital. They all have chest injuries and fractures, and one has head injuries. They are all British, and they are all elderly. It took about half an hour before the first ones came in. Many of them were in a very serious condition. 14 came in and only nine survived. Not all of them are in a critical condition, but some are."

Coach crashes are depressingly common in South Africa and this was the fourth serious crash in less than a week. But yesterday's crash did not involve a rickety bus, belching smoke and fumes as it struggled down the twisting roads; it was a luxury vehicle ownedby one of South Africa's leading operators. "Passenger comfort and safety are key factors to our service and at Springbok Atlas we are proud to announce the fitting of safety belts as standard in all new coaches - a first in South Africa," boasts the company's brochure.

Last night Thomas Cook, who organised the trip, was trying to contact the relatives of those injured in the crash. It was also trying to investigate what happened and five staff to the scene. "This is a tragic and devastating accident and we are doing everything humanly possible to clarify details of fatalities and injuries so that we are able to advise authorities and relatives in the UK," said Simon Laxton, a director and the managing director.

Apart from the obvious tragedy for the families of those who died, for an area almost entirely dependent on tourism yesterday's accidents represents another potential disaster. "It's a disaster and a tragedy. The town is devastated," said Lisa Sheard, owner of the Misty Mountain Lodge, a hotel on the Long Tom Pass.