One of the survivors of the Westdene Dam disaster that occurred 20 years ago remembers that there were many things different about the day before the bus went into the dam.
Eurika du Plessis, saved by her brother when a double-decker Hoerskool Vorentoe school bus plunged into the dam and 42 children drowned, says that usually her fellow classmates were normally loud and noisy on the bus ride home, but for some reason that day there was just quiet conversation upstairs, while others, including her, were looking out the windows.
Earlier in the day at one of the breaks, the girls who had known one another from grade 1, got together and hugged and kissed one another, as if saying goodbye. They normally never sat together, having made new friends in high school, although they’d all moved up together from primary school.
A third incident was a letter written by one of the girls to her parents, which she left in a bible. Du Plessis does not know what the girl said in the letter.
”Something was going to happen that day,” says Du Plessis, now 35.
The day was Wednesday, 27 March, 1985, at around 1.30pm, a day which saw heroism from local residents, from schoolchildren and teachers, who risked their lives to save children who went down with the bus. Those who died were aged between 13 and 17, taking the bus to their homes in Westdene, Sophiatown and Newlands.
Her brother, 17-year-old Theo, was riding in the bus behind her bus. He asked the driver to stop, then ran towards the dam, pulling off blazer and shoes as he ran, and dived into the water. He pulled her out through the small ventilation window by her foot, several minutes after the upper level filled up with water.
'I should have died'
Du Plessis remembers the day as if it were yesterday, she says. She remembers the bus “flying through the air”, then worrying about her suitcase, and what her parents would say, then blacking out. “I experienced a feeling of dying, I felt as if I was going towards a light, then I was pulled away from the light although I kept my eyes on it, then I was suddenly awake on top of the bus. I should have died.” The bus rested upright in the mud, with its roof showing above the water.
Du Plessis felt she was under water for almost 10 minutes. She remembers the water rushing up the stairway, and the younger children in the front of the bus running screaming towards the back, where the older children were trying to kick in the window.
”The water came in so quickly, we couldn’t kick out the window,” she says.
Her mother, Doreen de Kooker, says that Theo said that his sister was black when he pulled her out the bus. “Something told him to pull her tongue forward, and the water rushed out of her.” Theo de Kooker won’t talk about the disaster, in which he saved five children besides his sister. He received the Dirkie Uys and Wolraad Woltemade awards for bravery.
Doreen de Kooker says Theo told her he’s banned the disaster from his memory. “He was very emotional, he said that when he closes his eyes he sees dead faces against the windows.” Even 20 years later, a phone call to him confirms he’s still unwilling to talk about the disaster.
De Kooker says one of the mothers whose child was saved by Theo wanted to sell her house, and give everything she owned to Theo, such was her gratitude to him.
Du Plessis says once she recovered on top of the bus, one of the teachers, who had by then joined the rescue operation in the water, told her to swim the 5-6m to the dam wall. Once there, a spade was lowered and she was hauled up the 2m wall, and put into an ambulance.
She was taken to the JG Strydom Hospital (now Helen Joseph Hospital) just around the corner, along with the other surviving children, where she was diagnosed with double pneumonia and concussion. She stayed a week but returned once a week for two months until her lungs had cleared.
The hospital was soon packed with frantic parents desperate to locate their children.
One of them was Bella Venter, who lost her 13-year-old son, Albertus Ouwenkamp, in the accident. She says that, like every other parent who lost children that day, every year at around Easter, memories of the day come flooding painfully back.
It’s taken Venter 10 years to get to a point where she can speak about the incident. “It’s still raw,” she says.
Venter went to the hospital. “They kept showing me children, and I kept saying “No, that’s not him’.” The priest who took her to the hospital, said it was time to try the mortuaries. They drove to the mortuary in Braamfontein, where parents were queuing outside, weeping and asking why it had to be their child. It didn’t take her long to identify him, even before they pulled back the sheet. “I knew that he was there, I recognised his build under the sheet.”
She said she felt ice cold but relieved that he wasn’t still in the dam. “It was traumatic – the pain and grief was just too much,” she says, breaking down on the phone, although she’d started the conversation composed and calm and ready to talk.
Her son’s death was made harder for Venter because five years previously she’d lost her husband, and she was now alone with her 11-year-old daughter, Linda. Fortunately, her in-laws lived close by, and she got a lot of support from them. Counselling helped too, but “it can’t take the pain away, losing a child is traumatic”.
Like all the other parents, she often wonders what he would be doing now. ”He was a very clever child. He wanted to be game warder, but we didn’t want him to be so far away from us so we persuaded him to become a vet,” she says.
She says Linda and him were very close, “almost like twins who did everything together”, and Linda used him as her guide.
The driver, Willem Horne
Although both parents have, understandably, strong feelings about the driver and how fast and recklessly they say he was driving, Du Plessis confirms that the schoolchildren were “on good terms with the driver”, Willem Horne, who was always friendly to them. Although she says she felt he was driving the bus a little faster than normal, investigators found he wasn’t going above the speed limit.
He survived the disaster, and had to be kept under police guard at the hospital because a father had appeared with a gun, threatening to shoot him.
Inevitably the issue of race arose. Horne was coloured and had moved up from the Cape with his wife and five children, aged between 10 and 18. The accident happened at a time when the country was experiencing extreme upheaval, with riots, boycotts and stayaways causing the government to clamp down with more brutal force on blacks. Whites were emigrating, fearful of losing their protected status in apartheid society. Racial tensions were high.
In a 2000 SABC Special Assignment video on the disaster, a colleague of Horne’s described him as “a hard-working family man”. Horne’s church minister confirmed this: “My impression is that he was not capable of deliberately driving the bus into the dam – the accident was not deliberate.”
A short time after he was released from hospital he was allegedly attacked in his home in Eldorado Park by three men, and left for dead with a large slash in his neck. It’s believed that it was in fact an attempt by him to commit suicide.
He had been cleared of drinking and driving in the investigation but was charged with culpable homicide, and his case was finally heard in March 1986.
According to the video, a psychologist labelled his condition as “retrograde amnesia”, which meant that he simply could not remember what had happened. An investigator quoted in the video, said: “It is impossible to say what happened. We can’t say it was negligence.”
According to the Reader’s Digest of October 1986, it emerged in his trial that three years previously he had assaulted by four men and since the attack, had suffered from occasional blackouts.
Judge Johann Kriegler accepted that he had suffered a blackout just before the bus careered off the bridge, and, calling him “an honourable man”, acquitted him.
The video concludes with Horne saying after the trial: “My family and I have been very distressed. I pray to God to give us strength and give strength to the families. I express my deep condolences to the families. I thank all the people that stood by me. I thank my employers for my job.”
Shortly after the court case one of his children was killed in a hit and run accident, according to one of the mothers in the video. Horne eventually disappeared altogether.
Experience that 'won't ever go away'
Du Plessis says that, although it’s an experience that “won’t ever go away”, she has taken something positive from the experience. “I thank God every single day that I’m alive. I am sensitive to others going through loss.” She tried to contact survivors of the 2003 Saulspoort Dam disaster near Bethlehem where 51 people died when the bus drove into the dam. The process proved too tangled and she gave up.
She didn’t cry at the mass funeral held at Westpark Cemetery a week after the accident, but eight months later the tragedy hit her, and she cried then. She says: “There’s a lot of people who haven’t dealt with it. I have dealt with it very well, I didn’t keep it in.”
Tales of sorrow and bravery:
The Du Plooy family of Sophiatown lost two daughters in the disaster, Reinett, 16, and Linda, 15.
Pieter Koen, 17, rescued five of his schoolmates from the bus, but he did not return from his sixth dive. He received a bravery award posthumously.
Awards were given to the following children for rescuing their schoolmates: Willem van Aswegen, Theo de Kooker, Coenraad Viljoen, John Gordon, Martin van Lelyveld, Petrus van Heerden, Matthys Wehmeyer, Daniel du Toit, Gerhard Waldeck, Rudi Opperman and Reinette van Deventer.