On 23 August 2011, Stellenbosch Emergency Medical Services (EMS) received a call that people were trapped, and all vehicles were dispatched. The scene was located in an open field next to a stream.
Persistent rain turned the entire field into a muddy mess that was difficult to navigate and made it difficult to approach the scene. Visibility was limited. It was dark and raining.
The field was strewn with large heaps of rubbish, building rubble and the crumbling foundations of old building floors and foundations. A local resident helped the crew by showing them a trail that could take them to the trapped men.
A shelter was found at the furthest edge of the field. The men had dug out the soil from underneath a concrete slab floor, turning the floor into their roof and the foundations into walls.
As the rain eroded the soil, the floor broke away from the foundation and the concrete slab had collapsed directly on the sleeping men.
Steel re-enforcement held the broken concrete slab together. This made breaking the concrete pointless as everything was attached. It also made moving the slab impossible, as movement on one piece caused movement and pressure elsewhere.
Initially, all the crew could see was a single arm, shoulder and part of a head visible through cracks in the concrete.
The man screamed and moved his arm frantically as he tried to break himself free, but to no avail.
The crew knew there was a risk that the structure might collapse further or wash away in a mudslide.
Koning, a rescue technician, assessed the scene from all angles and found it too unstable to approach directly.
Fire fighters from the Stellenbosch fire station used a ladder in an attempt to gain safer access to the visible patient
The crew knew they did not have the specialised rescue equipment required for a structural collapse of this nature. They called for back-up from Cape Town. It would take at least an hour for the specialised rescue unit to get to the scene.
In the mean time, it was crucial for the crew to get to the patient and start life-saving treatment. With difficulty, they carried the necessary equipment across the field to where the patients were.
The crew set up lighting. A ladder was placed from the mouth of the shelter to the foundation on the far side, creating a bridge over the collapsed area.
Solomons and Pukuza used the ladder to crawl to the patient. They calmed the man. His arm was cold but they managed to find a vein and administer a drip from their awkward position.
The stretch down from the ladder to the patient was too high to do blood pressure monitoring and due to rain, they could not use the vital signs monitor.
They remained on the ladder with the patient while the fire crews coordinated scene safety. The crew kept the ladder stable and held the intravenous therapy (IV) line elevated. Metro control confirmed that the structural collapse vehicle was en route from the rescue base in Pinelands.
Spamers sent van Wieling and Mouton to bring more oxygen, supplies, portable radios and blankets in case more people were found alive.
Koning and Spamers checked the field to see if there was any way to get rescue vehicles closer to the scene, but there was none. The only access route was also the only egress route, so all the different services were directed to appropriate designated areas.
The police manned the top end of Starking Street to assist in maintaining a functional tidiness of the area and to ensure access to the dirt road for the rescue vehicles to enter and ambulances to exit when required to. They kept all bystanders well away from the scene and access route, which made imperative movements possible for the rest of the personnel.
Murtz suggested that the fire fighters manually move the concrete block over the patient’s head. Solomons helped by guiding their efforts to minimise any further structural damage, which at this point would have been fatal to the trapped men.
Spamers crawled onto the ladder and managed to get the patient a little calmer by stretching down as far as she could, touching his arm and occupying him in conversation. His name was Jerry Dentin. From all his wriggling and struggling, the drip was now in the tissue and she instructed crew to close the drip. Due to the awkward angle, another IV access could not be risked.
The specialised structural rescue unit and crew arrived. The fire fighters helped and carried the equipment to the scene.
Spamers briefed the rescue technicians on the situation with the currently visible patient. The concrete slab made a pointed edge over his head. If they were able to chip off the tip, the patient would calm down.
She stayed with the patient while the crew assessed the scene and determined the best possible course of action. Once they were ready, Spamers moved off the ladder.
The rescue crew moved in, re-established IV access and cleared access to the patient’s head. Now the patient could receive oxygen and he could see the efforts around him, this allowed him to stay still during the rest of the extraction.
The rain finally stopped long enough for the crew to get a complete set of baseline vital signs. The patient was at this point hypothermic but conscious.
Once he was freed, he was immobilised and moved to the ambulance. The crew began to warm him as much as possible, assessed his injuries and administered a second drip. Analgesia was administered and he was transported to the Stellenbosch hospital.
Equipment was cleaned and stock replenished to treat the second patient, who had since been located. Unfortunately both the other two male victims found were dead, due to the injuries they sustained.
Wet, cold and tired, everyone left the scene at approximately 7:45.
A six-hour battle by a team of 23 medical, fire and rescue crews saved the life of one man. Their perseverance gave this man a second lease on life.
Western Cape Government Health: Emergency Medical Services Crew and Management
Stellenbosch Municipal Fire and Rescue Services Crew and Management
Bystanders: Calvyn Heyns, Basil Petersen and Magdalene Petersen
Idasvalley Community in Stellenbosch
Hazardous Materials and Decontamination course sponsored by the Cape Winelands Training Academy