Coast KZN

07 Oct 2016

Heroes save trapped students

Zainul Dawood (Daily News)

Rescuer, Johan Muller, said the sea was at chest height at the hole in the wall at Thompsons Beach during the drama. In the background a lifeguard, Xolani Mdanda, stands on the walkway leading to the rocks where five students were trapped. (PhotoCredit: Zanele Zulu)

A volunteer rescue team has been hailed as heroic for coming to the aid of a group of holidaying students trapped on the rocks at Ballito by the unusually high tides.

The five students, on a semester break from North West University in Potchefstroom this week, had been tanning on high rocks at Thompson’s Beach.

At one point during the drama, which started in the afternoon and continued late into the night, one of the students fell into the raging sea and was swept away. The rescuers risked their lives to save her.

The students had arrived at the beach at 1.30pm on Wednesday unaware of the spring tide and huge waves that had been battering the KwaZulu-Natal coastline during the week.

The high rock where the students became trapped is reached by walking south, past the tidal pool, through a hole in a huge rock and on to a narrow concrete walkway that runs along the rocky shoreline.

The second-year students – Tanya Lotter; Jeannine Botha; Johan Pyper; Talitha van Wyk and Zander Botha – all 20 years old, decided to pack up and leave at 5pm.

But they found the tide had surrounded them, with high rocks behind them, making retreat impossible.

Panicking, cold and wet from the sea spray, one of the students, Zander Botha, used a cigarette lighter to attract the attention of residents of the Santorini holiday flats high above them.

Lotter said they had one phone, but the battery was dead.

“We were getting worried. We thought we could wait it out. We didn’t think the situation was as serious as it really was,” Lotter said.

Luckily for them, a resident in the flats contacted the Specialised Rescue Team (SRU), based in Ballito.

Quentin Power, head of the volunteer SRU, said they got the call just before 7pm.

“The caller saw a small light moving from side to side. She signalled them with a torch and they responded. She could not see anything from the flat.

“At this stage the waves were washing over the whole Thompson’s Bay pool, over the concrete and crashing into the ablutions. As our first two rescue swimmers got closer, they radioed that there were five people trapped,” Power said.

The SRU made its way to the students and fitted them with life jackets. Power said they calmed the students and briefed them on the rescue plan.

“While they were doing this, a freak wave washed over. Jeannine Botha lost her footing and was washed off the rocks’ ledge and into the raging sea with 5m-7m waves bashing into the cliffs.

“Risking their lives, (rescuers) Brendon Power and Brett Moran jumped in after her. They reached her and deployed an emergency throw line which I grabbed. This was used to bring them safely back to the shore in the unmanageable backwash,” Power said.

Speaking from Potchefstroom on Thursday, Lotter said it had been a terrifying experience, especially for her friends who had not grown up near the sea.

“When the rescue team arrived, they took Jeannine first over the walkway towards the hole in the wall. Suddenly a huge wave swept Jeannine into the ocean. We saw her drifting away. We couldn’t do anything about it. The rescuers were amazing though, helping her get out and calming her down. They are our heroes,” Lotter said.

“Jeannine had scratches all over her body. After she made it safely to the ambulance we were up next. We waited for an hour or so before we could go. It was so cold and we felt really miserable because we were there from 1.30pm.

“It was now 10pm.

“They took us individually to the other side of the hole in the wall. Luckily for us we made it without any injuries.

“When we got in the ambulance with Jeannine, I just saw blood everywhere on her legs.

“She was in so much shock. She is terrified of the ocean and now this happened to her. She went to the hospital for injections and just to clean the wounds.

“But we were lucky. Things could have turned out really bad. I was really calm throughout everything because I knew the rescuers knew what they were doing and I also grew up in Richards Bay,” Lotter added.

Power said the towline had a flotation system attached.

During the rescue, the rest of the SRU crew had set up a backup system, and by carefully timing the waves, brought all the students to safety.

Power said the rescue lasted three hours and they relied on head lamps and their knowledge of the area to cope with the dark.

Power said it was the angriest seas he had seen in a while.

The specialised rescue team volunteers are Power, a locksmith; Murray Rait, Netcare paramedic; Johan Muller, owner of Mozambik Restaurant; Kyle Meyer, who works at a timber store; and Issac Pillay and Zodwa Msibi, Netcare paramedics; Brett Moran the manager at Talisman hire; and Brendon Power, who owns Mersat, a DSTV installation company.

Botha was taken to hospital for a tetanus injection to prevent further infection of her scrapes from the rocks.

The SRU team also went back and fetched the students’ cooler box and bags.

Power said the students had been dressed in T-shirts and shorts and were cold. The rescue team was kitted in wetsuits and aquatic helmets.

“The delay in taking each person out was excessive; we had to wait for a break to take them one at a time. If they were not noticed, they could have been swept out to sea or died of hypothermia,” Power said.

Muller said the water level during the rescue was above chest height. He had to count the rip of waves and the time cycle between them. Each set had 10 to 15 seconds between them.

During the drama, the SRU lost R5?500 worth of equipment. This included a two-way radio, throw rope and head lamp.

“We are volunteers and doing this out of a passion. Our concern was getting these kids back to their parents safely. We had to do so without any light,” Muller said.


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