The train trundled along noisily, its carriages crowded with commuter’s hawkers, preachers, mothers and babies. For Johana Hlongwane (52) and her husband, Samuel Baloyi (62), it was just another shopping trip to the Pretoria CBD from their home in Soshanguve.
But this would turn out to be anything but a normal journey. Little did she know when she stepped into that train, life as she knew it would change forever. “You know how people often say the day when something bad is going to happen, they feel happier and at peace with each other? I don’t remember feeling anything like that at all,” says Johana, wringing her hands.
The couple were among the hundreds of commuters involved in a horror crash when two trains collided at Mountain View station, northeast of Pretoria, in early January. “We were among the last people to get in the train,” Johana says. “One of our neighbours was also in the train with us. She said she also had to do some shopping in town.”
Johana and Samuel were standing in the train as it was too full for them to sit. She’s thankful she was holding onto a hanging strap because if she wasn’t she doubts she’d be alive today. “There was no warning at all before the crash – no sign something terrible was about to happen,” she recalls.
“Then suddenly, there was a very loud sound – like, boom! I remember trying to get up but failing because my foot was stuck under a lot of things. It hurt so badly. There was a sharp piece of steel stuck in it and the pain was unbearable,” she says, shutting her eyes.
“When I wiped my eyes to remove the dust, my hand came back bloodied – that’s when I realised this was very serious. I cried for help, shouting my neighbour’s name because I remembered she was with us in the train. Two men came to my rescue. They lifted me up and unhooked the piece of steel from the side of my foot – that was excruciating.
“But my main concern was my husband. I couldn’t see him anywhere. I was so worried about him.”
After she was freed from the wreckage Johana begged her rescuers to find Samuel.“I didn’t want to leave until my husband was with me but the paramedics assured me they would find him, so I agreed to go to hospital.” The injured passengers were taken to Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria but couldn’t be treated as the hospital was already full so they were taken to the Dr George Mukhari Hospital nearby.
Johana spent the day at the hospital being treated for her fractured ankle, frantically worrying about her husband.
“I wasn’t really present in the moment, I just wanted to know where he was,” she says. “I was desperate for any news about him.” She went home just after eight that night. “I took a taxi home, limping and in pain. But I took painkillers and left the hospital because all I wanted was to find my husband.”
The next morning Samuel’s nephew, Lucky Baloyi, called her with tragic news. Samuel was at the Steve Biko mortuary. He’d been flung from the train and crushed under it when it collided with the other train. Johana was devastated. “My worst fear was confirmed – my husband was gone. I couldn’t believe it, I felt so numb. I told my children and we all rushed there. I broke down. It was so painful losing him that way.”
Samuel was one of three people killed in the disaster. Sarah and Dick Sekoma also lost their lives while travelling with three of their six children in the ill-fated train. Johana and Samuel’s two children, Thabo (28) and Lebohang (25), are devastated by the loss of their father. Thabo introduces himself as his mother tells of the pain of losing the love of her life.
The young man struggles with his emotions as he searches for words to describe how he feels. “I’ll miss everything about my dad, the man he was and the way he treated us, and my mom especially, was always inspiring. He was someone you could easily look up to. He was a humble man who did not like drama or trouble,” he says.
His mom puts her hand on his shoulder. “I will miss his jokes,” she says. “Samuel didn’t like to see people unhappy – so he would always try to make us laugh. Even little children enjoyed being around that old man.
“Sometimes when he came back from work – he did odd jobs in Waterkloof – I could tell he’d had a little bit to drink because he’d come through the gate and call me by all the nicknames he’d come up with over the years. ‘Liefie’ was his favourite of them all, though.” Thabo and Johana laugh at the memory. Lebohang joins her family and tells us how close she was to her dad and how much she’ll miss him.
“Dad was the only person who worked and took care of us, so now it’s going to be tough,” she says sadly. After Samuel’s death, outgoing Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga promised to build the family a house as they live in a shack. “I spoke to him again last week and he said the same thing, so I’m waiting on that,” she says. “People from the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) also said they would make sure to send us some money every month so we can live. We’re also still waiting for them to call as they said they would after the funeral.”
Prasa senior marketing manager Lillian Mofokeng tells DRUM the train crash was a result of a human error due to the manual authorisation system they use. “This is a system we’ve been using for a while, and it’s not illegal, by the way. We are aware it’s not without flaws, but we are doing everything we can do to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.”
For Johana and her family, those words are a cold comfort.