‘I was walking on dead bodies’ — responders and residents tell of Boksburg gas leak horror
Residents and first responders to the Angelo informal settlement gas leak, which claimed 17 lives, have described the aftermath of the tragedy.
‘When I arrived, I found that the one gas cylinder was still [leaking] gas as I could hear the hissing sound of escaping gas,” said Samuel Malaza, a resident of Angelo informal settlement, who was one of the first responders at the scene of a deadly gas leak in Boksburg on Wednesday evening.
“I stumbled forward and soon realised that I was walking on dead bodies.”
A total of 17 people died following the gas leak at the Angelo informal settlement. While the cause of the leak is still being investigated, it’s been linked to large-scale illegal mining in the area.
Outside a shack that was chained with a huge padlock, an unfinished carton of full-cream milk sat on a small makeshift table. It was just one sign of the life-saving measures locals tried to employ.
“They were using the milk to try to revive the grandmother… and her granddaughter who lived in this yard,’’ said Belinda Mashaba (37).
Mashaba was a close friend of the family, and neighbours called her after the disaster. In many African cultures, it’s believed that milk cures inhaled gas fumes.
“I was phoned this morning and the people who phoned me did not tell me that the grandmother and her granddaughter had died. I arrived here now from Ramaphosa [informal settlement] where I stay and I found that they died.”
Mashaba knew the grandmother and her granddaughter well as they were also neighbours back home in Mozambique. She said the mother of the child who died lives in Tembisa.
Rhoda Shilusi, also a resident of Angelo informal settlement, told Daily Maverick that a couple who lived in the same yard as the grandmother and her granddaughter, but in a different shack, were also believed to be dead, meaning four people died in just one yard.
While 16 people were originally confirmed dead, Gauteng Police Commissioner Elias Mawela said another person died while receiving treatment at a hospital.
“A total of 11 people were still receiving treatment in hospital,” Mawela said.
Mawela also confirmed that one of the SAPS officers at the scene was admitted to hospital and later released.
Elias Ndlovu (14) was away with a friend when the gas leak occurred and he said he thanked his lucky stars. He lost four family members — his sisters Clester and Siziwe, as well as a niece and a nephew — while his 42-year-old brother-in-law is fighting for his life in hospital.
On Thursday, he said he hadn’t eaten since the previous day, but would rather starve than cook and eat what is in the house. He was unable to contact other relatives after phones in the house were stolen during the commotion.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Three children among 17 killed in Boksburg ‘gas leak’ tragedy
“I will not sleep here either because the smell is still lingering in the shack. I am scared that the food might have been infected by the toxic gas. I can still feel it in my chest,” Ndlovu said.
A friend of Ndlovu’s sisters, Sikhangele Sibanda, said, “I would visit them to kill off the boredom and they were such good friends. Clester was my best friend.”
On Thursday, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi insisted that authorities use increased firepower in the battle against illegal mining to deal with well-armed zama zamas.
Police Commissioner Mawela and his team were astonished by the vast size of the mining operation within the informal settlement.
“The area clearly is a processing centre for the illegal miners. No doubt about it,” Mawela said.
“We have demolished their tools of trade, their ‘phendukas’ [crushers] and the other things they use to process the gold-bearing material,” Mawela said.
The Angelo informal settlement is so congested that it’s impossible to drive through the small rocky passageways. Parts of the area are extremely damp, despite the scarcity of rain. This shows how much water is used by the illegal miners. Large containers filled with water were lined up at the shack next to gas bottles where zama zamas worked.
Mawela said mining companies are responsible for rehabilitating mines when they have finished their operations and a multistakeholder approach was needed to address the issue, as the police alone could not win the war on illegal mining.
The provincial police boss also warned the community against harbouring criminals. He said before people rent out shacks, they must check who the occupants are and what they do for a living.
“Let me also remind them that in terms of section 2 of the Immigration Act it is illegal, it’s an offence to assist an undocumented person. It means you yourself are an accomplice,” Mawela said, referring to the significant number of foreigners reported to be involved in illegal mining.
Judith Manyisa (39) lost her 19-year-old son and daughter-in-law in the gas leak. She said they were the family’s breadwinners.
“I am just pleading for assistance to go and bury them back home in Mozambique,” Manyisa said.
“It was the most horrific moment of my life. Everyone who went outside was falling dead,’’ she said. “I am distraught.’’
Nyameka Thwesha (32) lost her partner.
“I was not around, but when I arrived there was this gas. When I arrived, my partner, who is also a zama zama in [nearby] Makause, lay dead outside with four guys around him.”
She said life was hard in the area and called on the authorities to act against illegal mining.
“Our shacks are burgled, we are raped, we are killed. If it’s not zama zamas, it’s guns,” Thwesha said.
“We want the government to remove the zama zamas here because they are making our lives hell.”
Samaria Carlos Nyathabi (32) lost her husband in the tragedy. She said she was worried about her three-year-old daughter who fainted and recovered several times when people fell ill on Wednesday night.
“It was a chaotic situation and people were trying to run away from the shacks only to fall dead,” Nyathabi said.
“We are shaken by the horrible deed which occurred here. If the wind at the time was blowing eastwards, the death toll would have easily exceeded 300,” said 69-year-old Angelo resident Theophelus Daluxolo Majozi. DM