'I jumped from one moving house to roof of another': Jagersfontein survivor

Survivors recalls hair-raising encounter with mudslide

13 September 2022 - 08:36
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Tshepiso Ngubeni nearly lost his life during the mudslide disaster.
Tshepiso Ngubeni nearly lost his life during the mudslide disaster.
Image: Thulani Mbele

Melvin Stuurman has recalled how he jumped from one house to the next as he fought to stay alive from the deadly mudslide that swept away houses in his neighbourhoodin Jagersfontein, Free State.

Stuurman, 42, said he was woken up by what sounded like an open tap at about 6am. He got up to investigate but found the tap in the house was closed and went back to bed. 

Minutes later, the gushing sound became louder and he got out of bed again, opened the door and the fast-flowing sludge flooded the house. 

In just his underwear, quick-thinking Stuurman rushed to the bathroom to escape through a window and clamber onto the roof.

“As I was trying to get out of the window, I realised the yard was also flooded so I used the gutters to climb onto the roof. At this point, I saw my neighbour’s house had started sliding towards ours,” he said.

“In a matter of seconds, I felt myself moving. The house was being washed away as well while I was on the roof.”

Stuurman said he had to think fast and jumped onto the roof of another neighbour's house.

“I jumped onto another house and even this house was moving but at a slower pace than the other two. At this point, the mud didn't feel as aggressive but I was still scared. The house I was sitting on was collapsing as well.

“It was like I was in a movie and I don't even know how I made it out alive.”

Stuurman said he was relieved to see emergency services personnel who threw a ladder into the mud which he used to get off the roof.

He had to get into the mud and held on to the ladder as the rescuers pulled him out.

“I was in my underwear. That's all I had. Everything I had was swept away,” said Stuurman who injured his arms and sustained cuts to his legs and stomach.

Another survivor Tshepiso Ngubeni, 57, almost drowned when he and his family, among them a 10-month-old baby, got trapped in the mud-flooded house. He said his son saved the whole family.

“My son managed to get the baby and one of our relatives out of the house. I was stuck in the mud and struggling to get up.

“My wife who has a disability was stuck in the bedroom.

“After getting the baby and his cousin out of the house, my son came back for me. He pulled me up just before the mud could cover my face. Then we paddled through the mud. I told him to leave me and that I would follow him but he insisted on pulling me to safety.

“My wife was still trapped in the bedroom. The bed was floating above the mud and that is how she survived. Emergency personnel got her out of the house and she was unharmed,” said Ngubeni.

For 66-year-old Wonder Mabula, it was shocking when the house his brother left him was swept away in a matter of seconds while he was driving from his parents' home in Old Location to investigate the loud gushing noise coming from the mine.

“From where I was, I could see the mudslide but I couldn't drive directly to the area, so I took the gravel road around to get to Charlesville. When I got there all that was left of my brother's house was just the foundation,” he said.

“All the furniture we had, the appliances, all the walls were gone. It's like there was never a house here.”

Eva Mokhethi, whose son Bheki was injured when he and a friend tried to rescue a woman being swept away by the mudslide, said: “They were on their way to work when they saw the dam wall break.

“They ran back to the township, yelling for everyone to get out of their houses. When this lady tried to get out of her house the sludge got to her and she got stuck,” said Mokhethi.

“My son and the colleague held on to a pole and the reached out to the lady trying to pull her out but the pressure was too much. She got swept away with the entire house.”

Mokhethi said her son and the colleague were hospitalised after sustaining moderate injuries.

Members of the community have called for accountability by the mining company responsible, Jagersfontein Development, accusing it of neglect.

In a letter in December 2020, the provincial department of water & sanitation stated that the storage of the waste water contravened the company's licence.

At the time, the department said waste water volumes were found to be almost double the authorised capacity.

“Concerns were raised by the municipality in 2019 and it seems mining companies are only after profits and don't care about lives,” said community member Lefa Shale.

Nine houses were swept away and 20 others damaged as the sludge flooded roads, killing livestock, in its path of destruction.

The area also lost power as Eskom bulk supply was interrupted.

Displaced families were housed at nearby churches and community centres.


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