World News

South Africa Train Crash Kills at Least 14

Posted January 4, 2018 1:06 p.m. EST

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — A passenger train burst into flames Thursday after striking two vehicles at a crossing in a remote part of central South Africa, killing at least 14 people and injuring more than 260, authorities said.

Mondli Mvambi, a spokesman for the provincial health department, said that a truck driver had miscalculated the train’s speed and tried to dash across the tracks at the crossing, just outside the town of Kroonstad, and that a passenger vehicle had also been involved.

“The death toll may rise,” Mvambi said. “Three burned carriages are yet to be lifted to check if anyone is trapped inside. It can take 36 hours. Rescuers are working as fast as they can.”

The train, operated by the state-owned Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, was carrying passengers home to Gauteng, the northern province that contains Johannesburg, from the east coast after the summer holidays, a time when migrant workers traditionally return to their family homesteads in rural parts of the country.

Wealthier travelers can book private sleeper cubicles, but most passengers ride in seated rows near the front of the train, which violently derailed after the collision.

Tiaan Esterhuizen, 32, a telecommunications engineer, was traveling with his extended family — 13 in total, ranging from 5 months to 83 years old. He was making the journey by train for the first time, after a colleague was killed in a motor accident during the holiday season last year. “We thought it would be the safer route,” he said.

Shortly after 9 a.m., while finishing breakfast in the dining car, Esterhuizen “heard a big bang, followed by second big bang, then heard and felt the train derailing” before sending out a plea for help on Twitter and joining a frantic rescue effort involving local farmers and, later, authorities.

Russel Meiring, a spokesman for ER24 Emergency Medical Services, a private rescue provider on the scene, said that train collisions were “quite uncommon” in South Africa. “There have been about five that I know of in the last five years — about one per year,” he said.

“Sometimes there are incorrect markings at crossings,” he said, but the problem was more often people taking a chance and thinking they could beat the train: “These things move faster than they appear. Some take more than a kilometer to slow down. Vehicles will always come off second best.”