Wednesday, February 19, 2020

BR tragedy witnesses put blame squarely on negligence

Fresh evidence emerging during testimonies by passengers who boarded a Botswana Railways train which derailed and killed two crew members suggests that that washway at Palla-Road was an accident waiting to happen.

They attest this to safety negligence at the organisation.

It emerged last week during testimonies by passengers who boarded the passenger train on that fateful day that they were uneasy about boarding the train on that day because when there are heavy rains Botswana Railways suspends passenger service train.

A key witness and a paramedic specialist at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Bushe Laba, told the board of inquiry investigating circumstances leading to the derailment of Botswana Railways train last year that a number of passengers were concerned about how safe the train was,

This following reports that there had been some downpours in the central part of the country.

Laba said he even called his wife on the phone asking her opinion as to whether or not he should call off the journey.

“I called my wife because there were reports that it rained heavily at Topisi. She told me to have trust in the Lord,” he said. He said as they were approaching mahalapye, he heard a loud bang and he realised that the train was derailing.

“I was confused but fortunately I was not injured. Because of my profession, I activated Emergency Medical Services,” he said. According to Laba, all the emergency medical services from Palapye and Mahalapye were engaged and he decided to “put Kgatleng and Gaborone on standby.”

“It was around 2:00 PM and it was scary because it was flooding around the carriages. There was panic and many people came to the carriages that were not derailed,” he said. Laba added that “we were concerned about the personnel at the locomotive (head of the train) and the security officers tried to call them but their numbers could not go through,” he said.

Laba said they after a few hours, they saw blue lights on A1 road and they manoeuvred around the floods to reach the place where personnel from Botswana Police and Botswana Railways were waiting helplessly as they were unable to access the scene of the accident.

“While we were them, a tall white gentleman who was also a passenger arrived saying there people trapped in the locomotive. We followed him and water this time was at waste level. It was then that the personnel also got courage from this white gentlemen to cross the running stream. We found blood flowing from the locomotive, “he said. Laba said it was difficult to cut pieces of steel from the wreckage and “The two victims died because we could not pull them out of wreckage, we could further injure them.”

According to Laba, “The first and second victims demised in our hands waiting for extrication. It took a long time to rescue the trapped victims. The incident happened around 0200hrs but the rescue team reached the victims around 0435hrs after cutting the train steel. The rescue was completed at 0730hrs.”

Laba told the board that “there has to be a high level of efficiency to save lives. It does not start with an accident. Train accidents are difficult and you need proper planning and proper heavy duty rescue equipment.”

“Even with the service of the fire brigade personnel it was not easy to remove the dead bodies because the works needed heavy duty equipment. The type of equipment used was not ideal. We need a robust response system which is still lacking,” he said.

Laba emphasised: “It was frustrating being there for a long time and seeing people losing lives. They were trapped and we couldn’t help them because where they were they were trapped, had to be cut first. The fire brigade personnel told me they had to carry their equipment to reach the scene. They managed to reach the scene around 4: 00 am.”

Laba said the equipment from the fire brigade they was not powerful to cut the steel but ultimately they managed to save the life of the third victim who was trapped adding that “The equipment that the fire brigade personnel brought were ideal for light or medium motor rescue, the trains need heavy duty hydraulic tools.”

Another key witness and an engineman, trainer and assessor with Botswana Railways David Sima told the Board that there is no policy regarding a learner driver working in the adverse weather condition, carrying passengers on board during raining and driving at night.

Sima who was one of the crew members trapped in the locomotive said he was aware that after Pallaroad, there are culverts that always have water and he asked the trainee driver to exercise caution.

“So I asked my candidate to reduce speed and we managed to pass the area. The track was clear and we continued with focus because we know Bonwapitse is a hotspot that poses as a threat. We had had many washaways at Bonwapitse River in the past,” he said.

Sima said just as they were nearing Bonwapitse River in a space of a metre or so, they noticed that there was a washaway and “at the time it was tricky, but my trainee managed to apply the brakes, that was when the locomotive threw us all over, and suddenly dipped in; I lost my conscious.”

Another BR passenger witness, Thengi Sandi, said along the way she heard a huge bang. Sandi said she was confused and she could feel the train moving in an unfamiliar way and “I saw some people praying.”

“We could see that the train was going to fall but we kept praying. We had small children with us and it was hard to move with them and the goods we had.”

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