The Accident

The Accident

This is a summary of an article that appeared in the Beeld on 28 March 1985.
Photos used in this post was sourced from the Beeld but not all  (if any) of them appeared in the article.

The death toll would have been much worse if not for the actions of four unidentified men who jumped in the dam and broke windows with their bare hands. Many lives were saves this way.

The children who survived told of complete chaos during the accident. In the panic to get out children stampeded over each other, breaking chairs which in turn injured and stunned others.

Overall view of the scene at the Westdene Dam

Overall view of the scene at the Westdene Dam. Rescuers standing in the water on the roof of the submerged bus. Around 30 children were rescued from or swam to safety from the roof of the bus.

Tragic scenes were witnessed at the J.G. Strijdom Hospital and the Johannesburg mortuary where hundreds of terrified parents sat waiting anxiously to hear what happened to their children. Mothers of victims became completely hysterical.

The double-decker bus hit the railing of the bridge within the first third of the bridge and went flying into the dam, coming to rest 10 meters from the wall, opposite the middle of the bridge, where it sank into mud at the bottom.

At the time of this article (and this is the case today) there was no clear cause for the bus to leave the road. The bus swerved left for some unknown reason. It was speculated that another car may have been involved in a collision with the bus but survivor Marcelle Wilsnach is quite clear in his mind about this:

“…there was absolutely no collision with any car. There were 4 buses who [sic] usually took pupils to the Westdene/Triomf area. We were in the last bus and there were no cars between our bus and the one in front of us. I can also categorically confirm that the driver went very fast that day. When a double decker [bus] drives fast, the whole bus shudders, to the extent that you have to shout above the noise to make yourself heard. That was certainly the case that day. Also, the bus didn’t swerve or anything like that. It simply went from a straight line, to a lazy turn, for lack of a better description…”.

Attempts to resuscitate Tanya Pieters

Attempts to resuscitate Tanya Pieters with her father (brown shirt) looking on. She was taken to hospital by helicopter but passed away at 6pm the same evening (source: Belinda Kleynhans, sister).

Police divers and paramedic teams arrived within minutes (other sources claim civilian divers were first on scene – or at least equipment supplied by civilians). A boat operated in the water for about 30 minutes to assist divers.

Some children were taken to safety during this time.

A large number of ambulances, emergency vehicles and helicopters arrived on the scene and emergency teams continued to remove trapped victims from the wreckage. Hundreds of bystanders looked on in horror as one young body after the other was brought to the surface.

Doctors on the scene fought to save the lives of children. According to one doctor the entire tragedy must have taken mere seconds as some children still had sandwiches and chewing gum in their mouths.

An hour after the accident most of the injured had been transported to hospital. Divers then removed bodies from the top deck of the bus and found more bodies in the bottom section. Attempts were made to lift the bus in an attempt to check the bottom section of the bus for more victims. The bus was still bogged down in the mud at this point.

Lifting the bus to remove more victims

Later in the recovery operations the bus was lifted off the bottom and out of the silt in an attempt to find the last of the victims.

Hydraulic rescue equipment, “Jaws of Life”, was also used to cut open sections of the bus and the last of the victims were removed.

It was around 7pm when the bus was finally lifted from the water. The bus had no serious damage and the indicator lights were still flashing. The bell used to indicate that someone wants to get off at the next stop was ringing.

At Parliament, the State President P.W. Botha, expressed his deepest sympathy with the parents of the deceased. Mr. Pik Botha, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed his condolences with the families of the victims. Other parties in the Volksraad (People’s Council) did the same.

Final recovery work

This angle shows dozens of nurses, emergency services personnel and police officers studying the recovery activities tensely. For emergency workers this would be a day burned into memory – a call they wish they never got.

An aid fund for the next of kin of the victims and a committee to coordinate the funeral arrangements was set up on request from Minister Pik Botha.

The driver of the bus, Mr. W.P. Horn was still in a serious condition at the J.G. Strijdom Hospital the night of the accident.

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  1. I was 12 years old and in no way associated with the Westdene Bus Disaster but can remember the sadness in our home that day. 42 Angels in heaven.

  2. Hi to all parents who lost their loved one during the bus accident

    If anybody know where I can reach or contact the father or Thelma Rautenbach I will much appreciate it

    • Hallo Gerda
      Ons is besig om vir jou navraag te doen. Sal jou laat weet sodra ons vir jou kontak besonderhede opgespoor het.

    • Hi Baie dankie. Sovêr ek weet het hy in Orkney gewoon en Thelma Rautenbach is ook daar ter ruste gelê. Sy naam is Johan Rautenbach en het ook ‘n seun met die naam van Quinton en ‘n dogter met die naam Rene gehad.

  3. I’m sure for a lot of people, this tragic accident still feels like it was yesterday. To lose a loved one in this way – actually in any way – is never a nice thing. And the survivors of the accident probably never go a day without thinking about what happened to their friends.
    I hope the families have found a way to find their peace, as losing a loved one can never be too long ago.

  4. Sover ek weet het Mnr Peyper selfmoord gepleeg met cloroform in 1975.

  5. I remember when it happened but this kind of tragedy only hits you when you have your own children. My sister and I was for only 1 year in the Westdene Primary School but I was already 22/23 when the accident happened.

    Does anybody remember a male teacher that committed suicide at the primary school in around 1973ish?

  6. Dit voel soos gister toe die bus in die dam ingery het. Ek was in St 6 en in die bus voor daai ene. My beste vriend van kleintyd af, Francois du Toit, is in die busramp dood. Ek mis hom. En ek dink vandag net weer aan ALMAL wat deur hierdie groot tragedie geraak is. Yolande Nunes.

  7. I was a young Ambulance professional at the time and was the second vehicle at the scene. I am still involved in pre-hospital medicine,and have become a full time advanced life support paramedic. I will never forget this call as long as I live,and only wish that we could have done more for the children involved at the time. Although it was such a long time ago, it is still very vivid in my mind’s eye. May they all rest in peace.

    • Hi Tom! Long time!

      I, too, was one of the first on scene. I was the Civil Defence (now Disaster Management) Ops Manager at the time. I was tasked to organise all communications between the scene, the hospitals and the mortuary. I also arranged the cranes which eventually retrieved the bus. It was the worst and saddest day of my life! I’ll carry those images to my grave. RIP.

      • Claudette van Rensburg

        Hi Max,

        I work for a publication: Fire and Rescue International.

        Do you think it would be possible to conduct a telephonic interview with you on the rescue-operation involved during the Westdene Bus disaster?

        Many thanks,


  8. It’s only as a parent yourselves that you can try to imagine the pain and hardship of the losses of such young lives. Even almost 30 years later, the article strikes me.

    May their young souls rest in eternal peace. May their parents have found peace by now, and experience and serve God regardless.

  9. Mercy on his chlid who died 2 weeks later after being knocked down by a car. God bless her

  10. Yvonne Binneman

    Even before we lost a child my heart ached for the parents, siblings and grandparents of the children in this terrible disaster. Unfortunately, we found that time is not a healer, the hole in your life and heart just gets bigger every day. However, I hope you all have found healing, peace and tranquility. Yvonne and Steve

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