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There are countless stories of bravery and selflessness from the recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal. We chatted to three of the many NSRI volunteers who took part in rescue operations.

“I’ve been a part of the NSRI for 30 years,” says Clifford Ireland, NSRI KwaZulu-Natal Regional Representative. “We’ve faced some big seas. I’ve had vessels sink and I’ve had people pass away. But in this situation, yes we helped people, which was great, but there was also a sense of helplessness. That, even more than doing the job that we did, was the overwhelming feeling among all the rescuers.”

Deputy Station Commander for Station 5 (Durban), Janine Rudolph, was working the duty phone that night. She took over 165 emergency calls in 12 hours.

“It was probably one of the most emotional things I’ve had to deal with since my father passed away,” she says, her voice catching as she speaks. “The duty phone diverts to my phone, so I was just sitting with two phones writing down details. I had people begging for help. Someone would call and say their house had collapsed and I could just hear the people screaming. And then they call back again and say ‘the people have stopped screaming, when can you come and help?’. You know you can’t save everyone but you just feel so helpless. It was just horrendous. You cannot explain what the crews went through.”

A different kind of rescue

Usually, when an NSRI team responds to a call, everyone gathers at the base before heading out to rescue casualties. In this situation the teams had to respond to the nearest emergency.

“I explained it to some of my crew as being sort of like mass casualty triage,” Clifford says. “In that situation, you’ll get to the scene of a car accident and there are 20 casualties. You always get told that you can't save all 20 people so you have to make a judgment call and focus your attention where it will do the most good. This is where it’s very different from our training – just the sheer scale of it and the number of calls.”

While the teams may have felt helpless at times, their involvement meant that scores of people were saved. The NSRI rescued 200 people that were trapped at Sapref, and 150 people who were trapped at Pepco.

“I’d like to thank and commend every single person who was involved. NSRI teams from Port Edward, Shelly Beach, Rocky Bay, Durban and Ballito all responded to calls, and everyone played a vital role in saving lives,” Clifford says.

The devil’s backyard

Rocky Bay Station Commander Kevin Fourie’s team initially set out to help get people out of the Sapref building. However, when they reached the Prospecton and Isipingo turn-off, they saw that their route was blocked by fast-flowing water, cars and containers. It was then that Kevin was contacted by Lifeguard Superintendent Jace Govendar, who told him about a man who had been stranded in a tree with his paraplegic daughter for about three hours.

“We went down to the freeway and launched the JetRIB on the freeway. Never did I ever think that I would drive a JetRIB on a freeway!” Kevin says. “Rescue swimmer Deon Dekker walked into the water and he went straight from ankle-deep to chest-deep, so we knew it was clear enough for us to go. So Travis Clarke, Jace and I got on the JetRIB and went down the freeway to where the two people were trapped. There was one heck of a torrent coming down – that freeway was like a fast-flowing river. We got next to the people and we could see that it was a father and a daughter who had been hanging on for about three hours. They were on their way to get dialysis for the daughter when they were washed away and managed to get up the tree, which luckily was high enough.”

The JetRIB ingested some debris at that point, so they had to turn back, but luckily they came across a small fishing boat that they were able to use to get the two casualties. This involved Travis swimming out into the water and allowing the torrent to wash them back down to where Kevin was waiting. In a heartbreaking voice-note received the next day, Jace informed the team that the young girl had unfortunately passed away in hospital.

After recovering the two casualties, Kevin, Jace and the team set out once again to get to Sapref.

“Boy, we landed up in the devil’s backyard!” Kevin says. “There were just people shouting out of the windows of factories and cars floating all over, and we didn’t know if there were people trapped inside them. We made the decision to get whoever was alive out of there. ”

Jace and Deon went to help people in the nearby residential area in the fishing boat while Kevin and Travis went to the factories in the JetRIB.

“It was just a matter of going back and forth, with Travis climbing into chest-deep water and wading out into the water, through chemicals and rubbish, and going to get people and loading them onto the JetRIB and taking them back down. We were like a taxi service, making decisions about who had the best chance of survival. At the end of it, not one person had died on our watch.”

KZN Floods 2022 2

Taking stock

Clifford has been sure to tell his crew that they did everything that they could, and that they should be extremely proud of what they achieved.

“We took 200 people out of Sapref. I went to a house personally where the retaining wall had come down and the driveway and front of the house had washed away. There was a two-metre wide ditch that was four metres deep, with water flowing through it. Inside the house were two toddlers and their parents who wouldn’t leave the house because they couldn’t get the children out. We had to put a ladder across and formed a human chain to get the children out, and then the parents came out. There were many scenes that we went to where we saved people, and there were many happy endings,” he says.

Kevin's message is similar. “I take my hat off to my crew, from Linda Putter who took hundreds and hundreds of calls from desperate people and reassured them, to Nicki Gibson and Wayne Van Nikkelen-Kuyper who were relaying messages to us and my two guys Travis and Deon who were in the water continuously. That’s where the training comes in. If we didn’t have the training that we have in the NSRI, things would go drastically wrong. These guys just operated like they had done this 100 times.”

Kevin also commended the performance of the JetRIB, which had never been used in such treacherous conditions. “She did absolutely fantastically. If it wasn’t for the JetRIB, we would never have been able to save all of those people.”

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