South Africa

South African train hits truck and bursts in flames, killing 18 and injuring hundreds

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 1:41am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 8:41pm

A passenger train smashed into a truck at a level crossing in South Africa on Thursday, killing at least 18 people, injuring 254 and throwing several carriages off the rails.

Flames ripped through the twisted wreckage and choking black smoke rose into the air as desperate passengers clambered out of the train travelling from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg to escape the inferno.

Tiaan Esterhuizen, who was on the train as he was returning from a holiday, tried to rescue three women who were trapped in a burning carriage.

“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,” he told the Times LIVE news site.

“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.

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“We searched but could not find the child … I am quite sure those women burned to death.”

Rescuers rushed to the scene to search for survivors and treat the injured. Officials warned the toll could rise as operations continued to clear the crash site.

“Police are investigating. The truck driver was taking chances … that cost lots of lives,” Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi told reporters at the scene. “The truck driver has been taken to hospital where we are going to do a blood test to verify if he was sober or not, or what was the problem.”

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The Shosholoza Meyl rail company, which operates long-distance trains in South Africa, said the train collided with the truck at about 9.00am.

It said the truck had made an “untimely” crossing of the tracks when it was hit by a train at high speed, between the towns of Hennenman and Kroonstad, 200km southwest of Johannesburg.

One of the derailed carriages was the power generator behind the locomotive car. It caught fire and the flames spread rapidly.

Shosholoza Meyl said there were 429 passengers on board.

“The pathologists who are here have given us the assurance they are convinced that the number of dead, 18, will be the final number,” said Mthuthuzeli Swartz, the acting chief executive of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s rail division.

Maswanganyi said an investigation to determine the circumstances of the crash had been launched.

Some victims were treated on a strip of grass beside the railway line while others were taken to hospital. Uninjured passengers waited on a nearby road, some of them carrying their luggage.