Outbreak

Coronavirus: SA citizens with 'high temperatures' left in China as 146 return home

Rescued South Africans happy to be back

15 March 2020 - 00:04 By GRAEME HOSKEN

Amy Pittaway was on board the airbus A340-600 carrying South Africans coming from Wuhan, China on March 14 2020. The mission saw at least 114 South Africans repatriated from the coronavirus epicentre back home. Pittaway takes us along her journey from Wuhan back to South Africa. Subscribe to MultimediaLIVE here: https://www.youtube.com/user/TimesLive Comment Moderation Policy: https://www.timeslive.co.za/comments/

It was the voice of South African Airways pilot, Capt Vusi Khumalo, over the intercom welcoming his 146 passengers on flight ZS-SND that prompted screams of euphoria throughout the aircraft.

"The flying time to Johannesburg will be approximately 14 hours. We welcome all of you on board," Khumalo said. "Please take your seats and relax."

But four South Africans were not allowed on the plane - they were turned away because Chinese officials found they had high temperatures.

"It was terrible to leave them behind but there was nothing we could do," said a member of the rescue team. "It is really sad. They are being monitored by the Chinese authorities."

The Airbus touched down at Polokwane International Airport at 10.45am yesterday.

"While we were confident about this mission, you are always nervous. We had such a limited time. Everything had to go right at exactly the right time," the team member said. "We were granted eight hours on the ground at the airport and then we had to leave. Fortunately it was a smooth operation."

Coronavirus cases in SA.
Coronavirus cases in SA.
Image: Nolo Moima/Deepika Naidoo

The team member said one of the passengers hugged him and burst into tears. "All could she say was, 'please take me home'. When the captain's voice came over the intercom there was no stopping the passengers. They cheered and smiled. It was a beautiful moment."

Capetonian Amy Pittaway said it was amazing to be back. "We were so nervous. The nerves throughout the wait have been building. But it evaporated once we got on the road to the airport. A bus organised by the South African government picked us up at our apartment. We had one roadblock, but went through it within two minutes. Everything just flowed."

Pittaway said the flight home had been incredible. "I always thought soldiers were really stiff and serious, but they were amazing. They had us in stitches with jokes and stories."

Another rescue team member said the first person onto the aircraft was a little girl.

"It was the most amazing moment ever. She was walking with her mom. When they were about 20m away she looked at her mom, looked at us, looked at her mom and then ran full speed to us, laughing and screaming with joy. She gave us moerse big hugs."

As the plane taxied to the holding area in Polokwane, military and department of health medical specialists and ground crew in bio-hazmat suits approached the aircraft.

Moments later, the passengers emerged, many high-fiving each other and taking selfies with the South African flag.

Gloria Dlamini beamed as police sirens escorted the passengers in buses to their quarantine site.

"Ke nako," she said. "They are home. These are our brothers and sisters. Anyone who says they must go home must voetsek themselves. Our brothers and sisters must know that they can relax and must not forget that we love them."


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