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Four NSRI stations joined the City of Johannesburg’s rescue efforts after a flash flood swept away a group of 30 worshippers in early December.

Flash floods are not an uncommon phenomenon in Johannesburg: when summer rainfall exceeds drainage or absorption capacity, the water has nowhere to go and levels can rise quickly, usually within six hours.

Tragically, a group of about 30 worshippers were beset by a torrent of water on Saturday 3 December, while performing a ritual along the banks of the Jukskei River near Sandton – a river notorious for flooding.

NSRI Gauteng (Station 27) were alerted by Netcare 911 ambulance services at around 16h30, Saturday, 3 December, and joined the City of Johannesburg EMS, Gauteng Government Health EMS, Johannesburg Fire and Rescue Services from Sandton Fire Station, CPF Security, SA Police Services, Police divers and Police K9 Search and Rescue at Arkwright Avenue, where a search commenced for what was believed to be 18 missing persons washed away by the fast flowing Jukskei River.

“We responded from our base in Benoni,” says Nicholas Woods, part of the Station 27 crew. “The water had subsided somewhat but we could see it had been about 1.5 metres higher very recently. We began to walk the river, searching for survivors, and sadly, that evening we recovered the body of a female casualty.”

During the night church groups attempted to determine who from their parishes remained missing. On Sunday morning NSRI Station 22 (Vaal Dam) and Station 25 (Hartbeespoort Dam) joined the rescue effort, and Station 35 (Witbank) joined in the afternoon.

A total of 14 bodies were recovered, with one person transported to hospital, making a full recovery.

flash floods

“I was the Station 27 duty coxswain, and received the initial call out on Saturday evening before activating the station,” says Jamie Potgieter, who coordinated the Station 27 rescue efforts. “I acted as the shore controller for this operation, deciding where each of our crew members were going and liaising with all the other organisations involved as to what exactly was needed. I was the point person for the NSRI for the operation as on Sunday we had stations 22, 25 and 35 join us in the search. On Sunday there was poor signal near the river where the search was taking place, and we were too far from the Joint Operations Committee (JOC) to communicate by radio, so I went to the scene next to the river to liaise with the crews, relaying information to the JOC at Sandton Fire Station.”

Although it was an emotionally challenging experience, Jamie believes it improved her leadership ability: “I did what I needed to do and so did my crew. It also made me realise that everything can change in a matter of seconds so you must always be aware of your surroundings.”

Indeed, her advice to the public is to stay away from water after heavy rainfall. “Flash floods have shown us just how deadly they can be; water is not something to be messed with as it may not look so bad on the surface, but underneath there can be very strong currents. If you come across a flash flood or someone needing assistance, please don’t go in yourself to try and assist. Rather contact the NSRI or the other relevant authorities to come and assist. In fact, that goes for any water rescue.”

The NSRI commends the tireless efforts of all rescue and support services involved in the operation.

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