News reports about the capsized Miroshga in Hout Bay in October last year indicate the significant amount of work that was done by rescue divers, poachers, NSRI volunteers, other tourist boats and emergency medical personnel to rescue between 35 and 50 passengers that were on board. Whilst this is significant in itself, the reports do not convey the drama of what happened under the hull of the boat where three women were trapped. The divers involved knew their lives were at risk – their equipment would not work at a depth of 55 metres if the boat had sunk – a very real possibility – they wouldn’t have been able to get out. It is a miracle that the women were brought out alive.
Team Drive will be profiled on SABC3 in a 7-week documentary drama series called Centrum® Guardians 2013, hosted by Ruda Landman. The show comprises dramatic re-creations of the stories that the finalists have been nominated for, including safety tips for the public on how to avoid accidents or assist in emergency situations. Centrum ® Guardians 2013 starts on Sunday the 4th of August 2013 at 16h30 with repeats on Wednesdays at 15h15.
On Saturday the 13th of October 2012 at approximately 14h30, emergency services and rescue crews were activated following reports that the 10-metre charter boat “Miroshga” had capsized at Duiker Island. Divers Fabian Higgins and Elvin Stoffels received a call indicating that people were trapped inside the upturned hull. Upon arrival at the scene, they prepared their dive equipment and jumped overboard into the choppy water. As Higgins was the senior diver, it was decided that he would go down and assess while Stoffels kept an eye on him.
Finding the entrance to the cabin was difficult as the sea was rough; Higgins had no idea what the boat looked like upright and he had to battle the strong surges of currents under the boat. He pulled himself down the side chrome railing and headed towards the door he spotted. Higgins held onto the seat backs and started searching inside. Seeing an open hatch about 500mm x 500mm wide, Higgins instinctively stuck his head in and looked around.
Looking up in the tiny air pocket, he saw that two sets of motionless legs were visible from the knees. Higgins tugged on the left set of legs and got no response. He then did the same to the legs on the right and to his disbelief, the person moved. He took his spare demand valve (breathing apparatus) and pushed it against the legs, engaging the airflow valve at the same time in the hope that the person would realise it was breathing equipment. To his amazement, a hand reached down and grabbed it. Seconds ticked by, then the demand valve was dropped back in the water. Again he gave the demand valve to the person by knocking it against their legs and then started pulling hard on the legs, hoping they would understand.
After a few more tugs, a woman came down through the hatch. He reversed out of the entrance, pulled her down and placed the demand valve in her mouth. He wrapped his left arm around her body and used his free right hand to navigate out the cabin. After a few dangerous moments, they were free from the boat so he inflated his diving gear to send them up to the surface. At this point he called to the NSRI crew to assist him. After a few minutes of regrouping and a sip of water, Higgins went back into the sea. There were at least two more people trapped in the hull.
Entering the cabin a second time was easier as he knew where to go. Again he put his head and arms into the hull and looked around. The legs had disappeared, so Higgins knew that the person was still alive. With his air supply low, he pushed the spare demand valve into the air pocket again and blasted more air into the space, hoping the person would take it. With no response and out of air, Higgins had to quickly make his way out from under the boat. On resurfacing and being pulled back into the boat, Higgins saw the police divers had arrived.
Captain van der Merwe said that on arrival he could barely see the upturned hull of the capsized vessel with the two NSRI rescue swimmers sitting on it. He did a brief hazard assessment and told the divers that nobody was obliged to participate in the operation, as there were many life-threatening dangers associated with diving in these conditions. All the divers immediately told their captain that they would dive.
Higgins explained to Captain van der Merwe and his crew where the remaining victims were and what the boat looked like so that they could navigate their way in. He noted that it would be necessary for the divers to take their diving gear off to enter the small space to reach them.
SAPS divers Lourens and Uhde were to do the first entry, with Voigt and Nel acting as back up divers. They manoeuvred their way under the vessel towards the confined space where the victims were reported to be trapped. Uhde saw the feet and entered the small opening where he found the two survivors. He tried to calm them while blasting fresh air into the space. He came out and indicated to Lourens to go in. Lourens could only squeeze the top half of his body through the opening. He removed his mouthpiece to speak to the two women, one of whom was completely hysterical. He tried unsuccessfully to calm her down, and the rough conditions caused him to swallow several mouthfuls of water. The fuel vapours were so overwhelming that he had to concentrate to remain calm. He was struggling to breathe and could not see as a result of the fumes that made his eyes burn. Realising that they needed to regroup, Lourens told the women that he would be back. Both he and Uhde blasted air from their demand valves into the cavity to bolster the supply of fresh air, and together they surfaced to get dive masks and brief the other divers.
Back with the two victims, Lourens explained that they were going to take them out. He gave them masks and worked to get the life jacket off the first woman, who was closest to the exit. He could not undo the straps as they were tied so tightly. He contemplated using his knife to cut the straps but abandoned the idea because of the risk of cutting her in the turbulent conditions and sharks in the water were another consideration.
The mouthpiece of his secondary breathing apparatus would not reach the woman’s mouth, so he had to remove his kit and hold the cylinder between himself and her. He ensured that she was able to breathe with the secondary mouthpiece. He tried to pull her down, but her natural instinct made her pull back every time her face entered the water. Lourens realised this was not going to work.
Signalling Uhde to take over, he handed his diving gear to him and moved towards Nel and shared his air. Again, the tumultuous conditions made sharing close to impossible. Lourens knew he would become a liability for the team as their attention was divided between him, without his kit on, and the women, so he indicated that he was going to surface and they understood that they should continue without him. Lourens free-dived out and Nel followed to ensure he surfaced safely. As he surfaced, Lourens vomited violently. Several factors contributed to his condition, but the petrol and paint fumes in the cabin were mostly responsible. Later he said he was amazed that the victims were lucid with the strong fumes in the space.
Uhde, Nel and Voigt continued. Uhde put his head into the space and explained that they had to move immediately. He knew he had to pull the first woman out and indicated to Nel and Voigt that he was going to make his move. Ensuring the woman had the mouthpiece in her mouth; Uhde mustered all his strength and pulled her out of the opening, where Nel and Voigt helped him to pull her through completely. It was difficult to take her under as the life vest kept her buoyant. The team used all their strength to wrestle the woman down, under the craft from where she was directed upward with Uhde. He surfaced with the victim and the NRSI team immediately assisted. They took the woman for immediate medical attention, amazed that she was alive.
The second woman, by now resigned to her fate, worked with the divers and was quickly taken out from under the vessel and they surfaced with her. Jones went in to help the divers. The woman was put into the vessel with Dr Robertson where she was assessed and assisted.
Van der Merwe said he could see the divers were okay, only extremely tired. He asked the skipper to try and move closer to the divers. Water conditions were atrocious and the divers were struggling. Jones helped the divers get closer to the vessel, where van der Merwe threw a rope to them and one by one pulled them towards the boat. They were so exhausted that they could not get into the boat and Van der Merwe had to physically pull them and their dive gear on board. They were all lying on the deck vomiting – but everyone was, in essence, alright. The vessel was located at a depth of approximately 50 metres and, if the boat sank, the dive team would not have been able to get out in time, almost certainly costing them their lives.
Colleague Mike Sadie said that nobody could be trained for a rescue operation of this nature, adding that recreating such dangerous conditions for training purposes would be too risky, if it was possible at all. Sadie said that for the divers, this was a “once in a lifetime rescue operation”, as their training and experience is predominantly in search and recovery. According to Lourens, this was the first time he had rescued people in his 17 years of diving experience.
Watch Team Drive in episode 4 on SABC3 on Sunday the 25thof August 2013 at 16h30 (repeat on Wednesday the 28thof August 2013 at 15h15). Their full story can be viewed online at www.centrumguardian.com. To vote for the team, SMS “DRIVE” to 34020 or vote online via the Facebook page, mobisite or website. Proceeds from SMS votes will be donated to their base stations. SMS’s are charged at R1,50 (free SMS’s don’t apply). The winner will be determined by a 50/50 split between public and independent panel votes.
The Centrum® Guardian Project is a corporate social investment project implemented by Centrum®, the world’s number one multivitamin. “We are astounded by the calibre of nominations we receive each year. Every single story has an element of bravery, passion, and determination, to name just a few of the attributes that the remarkable men and women in the EMS possess. We are proud to showcase the Emergency Services industry and share the work they do with the South African public through the Centrum® Guardians series.” said Natasha Macdonald, the Centrum ® Brand Manager. For the full list of terms and conditions and for more information, please visit www.centrumguardian.com.
- Fabian Higgins (Dive Supervisor, Rescue Technician, ILS) and Elvin Stoffels (Diver, Rescue Technician, ILS) from Western Cape Government Health
- Captain PJ van der Merwe (Dive Supervisor, Provincial Coordinator) from Diving and Water Policing
- Captain Eben Lourens and Constable Heino Uhde (not present in the photograph) (Bomb Squad, Police Divers), Warrant Officer Gert Voigt and Warrant Officer Douglas Jones (Flying Squad, Police Divers); Sergeant Merwin Nel (Ravensmead SAP, Police Diver) from Western Cape, South African Police Services
- Each finalist or finalist team will receive R2 500
- The winner if an individual will receive R5 000 and if a team R10 000
- The winner’s base station will receive R35 000
- Voting for the finalists will be open to the public on 1 July 2013 and close at 17h00 on 11 September 2013
- The winner will be announced on 12 September 2013 at the finale ceremony and at 16h30 on 15 September 2013 on SABC3
There are four ways to vote for the Guardian or team of Guardians who inspire you to live life at 100%:
- SMS the keyword of the finalist who most inspires you to 34020. Votes are limited to 10 votes per finalist per cellular number. SMS’s are charged at R1.50 (free SMS’s don’t apply). Proceeds from SMS votes will be donated to the base station of the Guardian voted for.
- The Centrum® Guardian Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/centrumguardian
- The Centrum® Guardian website: www.centrumguardian.com
- Votes are limited to 10 per user on Facebook, the Mobisite and Website.
Prizes for all the finalists:
- Six months supply of Centrum® for each person
- Career Advancing Training for the 2013 finalists
The judging panel consists of representatives from the following organisations:
- SA Private Ambulance and Emergency Services Association (SAPAESA)
- National Committee on Emergency Medical Services (NCEMS)
- Southern African Emergency Services Institute (SAESI)
- South African Petrochemical Fire Chiefs Committee
- Institution of Fire Engineers (SA) (IFE)
- National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI)
- National Fire Advisory Forum
- SA Red Cross Air Mercy Services (AMS)
- Pfizer Consumer Healthcare
- Netcare 911
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