Life-and-death calls haunt Cyclone Idai rescuers
Exhausted South African medics have told how they had to decide who would live and who would probably die during their rescue operation in flood-ravaged Mozambique.
"It's terrible thing to be the one who decides who lives and dies," said Rescue SA paramedic Travis Trower.
"It is a privilege to be able to say that you've saved someone, but knowing we left so many people out there to die leaves me hollow.
"It was pitch black and we were paddling through the water. We could hear people screaming to us for help and we just couldn't get to them. We left them there.
"When we were in the air, picking people off the roofs, we could see bodies in the houses. People had just collapsed and given up."
The South African rescue team, which deployed to Mozambique 10 days ago in preparation for Cyclone Idai, returned home on Thursday with harrowing tales.
The cyclone is considered the worst to ever hit the southern hemisphere.
The team consisted of personnel from IPSS Medical Rescue, Rescue SA and Rescue Care.
IPSS operations manager Paul Herbst said the team were mentally and physically exhausted and their fatigue meant it "was no longer safe to continue the strenuous types of technical rescues they are performing".
Herbst spoke of the agony of having to leave men behind as they could take only the elderly, women and children.
Medic Daniel Lobjoit said they could hear people crying and calling after them as they left. When they returned for the men they found only empty branches. Herbst said they could only have drowned.
"Beira is bad, it's worse than we could have imagined. The water is full of everything you can imagine. And so many animals, while I am rescuing people from trees there are snakes and dogs clinging to branches. When I'm in the water I'm navigating cows and goats and chickens. I saw them swimming and then drowning right next to me. It was horrific. From the first day we realised there is no way we can save the animals. Many families who found refuge on islands had their pets with them. The animals were as emaciated and terrified as the humans. We were getting bitten. We had to leave them and save the people," Herbst said.
The rescuers camped at Beira International Airport, where the noise from the engines kept exhausted rescuers from rest. The aircraft were bringing hundreds of aid workers and rescue teams into the port city.
The team found an entire village seeking refuge on the stands of a basketball court.
Ceron Meadows from Rescue Care said people were getting infections from being in the water so long.
"A woman had carried her baby in the water for days and the combination of being wet and the chafing from being carried had created an enormous rash on her [the baby's] lower half.
"Another little boy had a broken leg in a cast. His whole leg was so badly infected from being in the cast under the water for days.
"Each day we came back the environment became more contaminated as people were forced to use the court for ablutions," she said.
Lobjoit said he saw a whole herd of cows. "They were just standing up to their necks in water with their heads up, just trying to breathe."
Meadows said one of the first rescues was of an eight-year-old girl who had watched her entire family drown before rescue teams were able to get to her.