ON Christmas Eve of last year, South Africans awoke to a tragedy unfolding. Videos of a raging fireball and images of burnt bodies were posted on social media in the aftermath of a tanker explosion in the eastern Johannesburg suburb of Boksburg.
June 27, 2023
8 min read
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Six months have passed since the incident, which left 41 people dead, dozens injured, and a nearby hospital devastated. While law enforcement and municipal bodies have promised justice, the victims and their families have had little in the way of communication or answers.
“She phoned and said ‘I’m burned’,” says Samuel of his wife, Margaret, a nurse at Tambo Memorial Hospital. She phoned him immediately after the explosion. “Burnt from what? Just come here quickly. But when I go there, I get disaster [sic]. I just looked once and I run away.”
“I was at home… and I heard a very big bang sound. I didn’t know what was going on… and then seeing a truck is stuck under the bridge, how? When I took the video, the moment I heard the sound, the gas, I told the guys, ‘Let’s run. This thing is going to explode,’ ” said one witness, who asked not to be named as they had lost family members in the incident.
On that disastrous morning, the tanker, carrying 60,000 litres of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) departed from its rest stop, en route to Botswana. Owned and operated by Infinite Fleet Transport, and piloted by a driver from labour broker Innovative Staffing Solutions (ISS), the tanker collided with a bridge overpass just outside Tambo Memorial Hospital.
The tanker’s roof cap was scraped off in the collision, causing the invisible, highly flammable liquefied gas to leak. Bystanders arrived to view the scene, unaware of the danger the tanker posed. Shortly after the leak, the gas ignited.
Ekurhuleni Fire Department members attempted to extinguish the flames. The tanker driver, who is reported to have attempted to create a cordon with private security members on the scene, fell unconscious from gas inhalation and was taken to hospital.
An hour after the initial accident, with fire department officials and bystanders at the scene, the tanker exploded.
“I saw this massive explosion with flames coming towards me,” said Pam Bjornstad, a witness who lives three streets down from where the tanker exploded. “This explosion came and it was just like heat, like really, really hot… and we just heard screaming.”
“The initial explosion area, from the accounts that I’ve read, would have been around 1,600 square metres,” said Malcolm Midgley, a retired battalion chief from Professional Fire Services and a 42-year fire service veteran and hazmat fire specialist.
“But the extent of the heat and radiated heat… A lot of people were seriously burned, grievously burnt, lost body parts and limbs… but that was from the explosion, and from the overpressure. That whole area should have been evacuated.”
Samuel’s wife, Margaret, was within range of the fireball. A healthcare professional in the public sector for decades, she was taken to hospital in Alberton when paramedics arrived on the scene. “The way I saw her then was so very bad… that guys for counselling, they said it’s only 14% that she can live… 14% is nothing.” Margaret died a few days later, leaving three children.
“I lost a mother. I lost a friend. I lost a buddy,” said Samuel and Margaret’s eldest son, who asked not to be named. The family was supposed to journey to Limpopo together on Christmas eve. Because he was running late, Margaret decided to go in to work. “I was late basically… That mistake will never be rectified.”
While Midgley makes it clear that the priority response on the ground should have been to immediately evacuate the area, a multitude of factors appear to have contributed to the disaster on that fateful Christmas Eve.
The tanker, owned and operated by Infinite Fleet Transport, was transporting LPG from the Port of Richards Bay to Botswana. The driver is reported to have spent the night at a nearby truck stop, before departing early on the morning of 24 December 2022.
According to the ISS’s managing director, Arnoux Maré, the driver got lost and attempted to return to his approved route. “Unfortunately, he just missed a turn-off, and what he did is he took the next turn-off to rectify his route.”
Maré said that when the driver came to the bridge overpass, he conducted a visual height assessment of the bridge and thought the tanker would pass underneath. Maré claims that the slope of the road beneath the bridge led to the collision.
“He verified that the horse would be able to pass under the bridge, he verified that the trailer would be able to pass under the bridge” said Maré.
“The truck did pass under the bridge… but when he started doing the incline, obviously the height of the truck changed and that caused the valve to actually scrape on the truck and did damage and caused the leak.”
The height of the tanker trailer could not be independently verified, but it is thought to have been around 4m. According to law, the maximum height of a vehicle without an abnormal permit is 4.3m, which means that any obstacle lower than that must be signposted.
There was signage on the bridge itself, according to Google Maps data, until at least November 2021, indicating a bridge height of 3.6m, but there was not any signage before the turn toward the bridge, as required by law.
“The roads authority must warn anyone if a bridge is lower than that, simply because your standard vehicle is allowed to be 4.3m high,” said road traffic and transport legislation consultant Alta Swanepoel, who assisted in the construction of the Road Traffic Signs Manual as well as the drafting of dangerous goods legislation.
“As I understand it… that bridge was 3.6m [high]… so you need to have a regulatory sign before the last turn-off to show that you’re not allowed to continue.”
While there was no regulatory signage before the turn, the lack of signage doesn’t entirely account for the driver attempting to pass under the bridge itself.
“If they run up to the bridge and they realise they cannot pass, then they would have to reverse that gas tanker from there to the first safe place where they could actually turn that vehicle around,” continued Swanepoel.
On the approach to the bridge is a turn-off to the entrance of Boksburg Lake. The tri-axle tanker, with a length of less than 20m including the truck, might have been able to use this as a safe spot at which to turn around once confronted with the low-lying bridge.
Moreover, standard practice in the transport of hazardous materials includes performing a pre-inspection of the route, noting detours and possible hazards, all of which the driver is to be briefed on before a journey. Such an obstacle on a possible route such as the low-lying bridge might have been noted. This is called a route risk inspection (RRA).
We put these questions to the driver of the tanker and Innovative Staffing Solutions, asking whether the signage was visible and why the driver did not turn around, as well as requesting a copy of the RRA.
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The driver of the tanker was arrested while in hospital soon after the incident, and charged with several cases of culpable homicide. He was released a few days later due to a lack of evidence.
Daily Maverick managed to trace the driver to his home town in KwaZulu-Natal.
“I’m stressed. I’m stressed too much,” he said. “If I’m talking about this accident, like, I’m feeling confused. I’m not feeling okay about this.”
He directed further questions to his lawyer.
Attorney William Booth, who represents both the driver and Innovative Staffing Solutions, declined to answer these questions on the basis that they are subject to ongoing investigations and possible criminal and civil litigation.
“As the matter is essentially sub judice, I do not feel it is appropriate to deal with your questions as some of them relate to very specific details which may impact on my clients should any of them be criminally charged or, for that matter, should there be an inquest.”
Swanepoel said: “As far as the bridge is concerned, you must realise that you actually need a group of signage.
“You need a warning sign ahead of this bridge. Then you need a regulatory sign stopping people from going in that direction if the vehicle does not comply. And then another warning sign. So that would be the local authority that would be responsible for it.”
That responsibility falls squarely on the City of Ekurhuleni.
The then mayor of Ekurhuleni, Tania Campbell, claimed in an interview in January that while investigations were still ongoing, “The current reports are indicating that Ekurhuleni signage is in place.”
However, the lack of adequate signage is not the only error that critics highlight in the City of Ekurhuleni that led to the disaster.
Witnesses interviewed by Daily Maverick, as well as the official log of events from ISS, indicated that multiple calls to Ekurhuleni emergency numbers to report the accident went entirely unanswered.
“I have requested copies of those logs,” said Campbell.
“The report tabled to me has indicated the SAPS 10111 number was not answered; however, the Ekurhuleni number was answered.”
The ISS logs contradict Campbell’s account, indicating that it took the driver and ISS controller no less than nine phone calls and 15 minutes before any emergency number was reachable — the first being the SAPS 10111 line.
This reporter filed Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) requests earlier this year to the City of Ekurhuleni requesting these logs. The requests were denied, citing an ongoing criminal investigation.
Mayor Campbell was ousted in a vote of no confidence on March 30, 2023.
Eyewitness reports indicate that the first to arrive on the accident scene were private security personnel, who assisted the tanker driver in attempting to clear the area and create a cordon because of the risk of an explosion.
Thirty minutes after the driver notified the ISS controller of the accident and gas leak, the Ekurhuleni Fire Department arrived on the scene. By then the gas leaking from the tanker had begun to burn. DM