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The mother, son and daughter were walking in the centre of North Pier when the tragedy unfolded.
The Durban coastline is experiencing a spring tide, when the water level and waves are much higher when the tide is coming in.
The pier is situated opposite North Beach police station, where Nadasen Koopasamy was standing when he heard people screaming.
“The waves were crashing over the side of the pier. This must have been a monster wave for it to pull the kid off it. I heard screams and people pointing into the waves. A man saw the girl in the surf and dived in to help, but the waves were too strong for him. He swam back to shore,” Koopasamy said.
By then lifeguards had gone into the water with rubber boats, he said, but could not reach the girl because of the swells. Koopasamy said lifeguards had to go further out to sea to let the waves carry them to her.
Rescue Care paramedics operations director Garrith Jamieson said lifeguards and a doctor tried to resuscitate the girl at the lifeguards’ towers, but she died. The parents were still in shock and unable to speak to the Daily News on Sunday night.
Since Saturday waves were crashing higher up on the shoreline and the water flowed on to the promenade. The piers, except for the Snake Park fishing pier, were closed to the public during the holiday period.
Colonel Thembeka Mbhele said an inquest docket had been opened at Durban Central SAPS.
Mike Bloxham, a fisherman, said the spring tide would peak on Wednesday. Bloxham said it would be dangerous for people along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, which could experience a backlash from the cyclone that passed through Madagascar.