On 27 March 1985, a yellow double-decker bus transporting school children from the Vorentoe High School, left the road as it was crossing over the bridge of the Westdene Dam in Johannesburg. 30 Children swam to safety or were rescued from the rooftop of the bus. 42 Children died.

Bystanders and fellow schoolmates desperately tried to save the panicking children. Tragically some survivors died while saving others. The incident was declared a national disaster by the government of the day. To place this event in some context as to where we were in South Africa’s history, elsewhere in the country Beyers Naudé and Allan Boesak were arrested for leading a protest march.

Moira Kloppers sums up the tragic events in a podcast published on Solidarity Blog. Press “play” below to listen to the story:

Map showing the location of the Westdene Dam

Approximate entry point

To this day, no one knows exactly what caused the bus to leave the road and plunge into the dam. There were no obvious mechanical problems with the bus and the tyres appeared to be in order. There was no indication that the bus had collided with another vehicle immediately before going off the causeway.

The driver of the bus, Mr William Horne, 41, was described by those who have travelled on his routes before, as an excellent and conscientious driver. Immediately after the incident, he told the media that he could remember very little of the accident. There are some conspiracy theories floating around but it is very hard to believe that William Horne, a family man with 5 children of his own (between the ages of 10 to 18), someone who knew the children as he was their regular driver, would not have taken the utmost care in transporting them.

Schematic of the accident scene

The schematic was scanned from the Rand Daily Mail and gives one a better understanding of the layout of the scene where the bus went in.

A virtual drive over the Westdene Dam wall shows the road travelled shortly before the accident (slideshow):

Visuals courtesy of Google Earth © 2010

Even before the bus hit the water, some of the older boys tried to kick out the back emergency window, but they failed. Marcelle Wilsnach, now 41 and one of the lucky survivors of the Westdene bus disaster, last year (2010) relived the accident in the hope her chilling testimony [during a court case relating to emergency exits in busses] could aid in resolving faulty emergency exits. Wilsnach said she could remember the screams and feeling of utter disbelief as the bus plunged into the dam.

“Pieter Koen, another boy, and I climbed over the back seat and attempted to kick out the emergency exit windows, but if ever a myth was rudely shattered, it happened in that moment. None of the emergency windows even budged an inch. We stopped in time to grasp a final gulp of air and then the water was over our heads and it was silent.”
Source: iol.co.za

A woman who lives nearby, and was one of the first on the scene, remembers the terrible screams as the bus went down, and then the terrible silence.

The local fire department had no diving unit at the time and the first divers on the scene were civilians. Firefighters attempted underwater search and rescue using their fire fighting breathing apparatus (SCBA). Rescue attempts were carried out by some of the children who had been on the bus as well as passers-by. Emergency services started arriving within a few minutes.

After the accident the Fire Department established a diving unit. It is no longer operational.

Further reading

For a comprehensive insight into conditions in the bus shortly before the accident as well as the aftermath, visit the Gelofteland website for a well-written account (in Afrikaans) or read the PDF version.


  1. Donna Armstrong (was Flynn)

    I was in Standard 5 in Brixton Primary at the time, lived in Hursthill, just a couple of kms away from the dam. I will never forget this tragedy, I was only 12 at the time, I remember going to Vorentoe a few days afterwards for a memorial service, as one of our school representatives and the sight of hundreds of children lining the streets sobbing uncontrollably. I often think that there but for the Grace of God go I, grateful I had the chance to grow up xx God Bless them all, may we never forget them x


    I didn’t even know. Heard about the incident on 702, and decided to Google it. I don’t believe 30 years after this incident, we still have busses killing children. Not OK.

  3. Adri (Toerien) Becker

    Ek was in Laerskool Gen Christiaan de Wet in 1984, saam met Madelein, Jacki, Annetjie, Francoius, Charl, Andries, en Marietjie, …

    Karin Erasmus my niggie

    Amal …. Weg…..

    Maar tog nooit vergete.

    “We will meet again..don,t know when ….”

    • Adri (Toerien) Becker

      Gesiggies …..

      Ek dink so baie aan julle ,
      Gesiggies uit die verre verlede
      Partykeer met n diepe heimwee….
      En dan soms ….net soms…
      Met n siel wat kranksinnig hier
      diep binne my skreeu !!!!

      Ja ,… Ja, dis al lankal deel
      van die verlede,
      en tog ..
      Spreek die verlede nog elke dag !
      Hier in die hede.

  4. Adri (Toerien) Becker

    Hi Bianca
    My name is Adri (Toerien) Becker and Karin Erasmus is my cousin in my mothers side
    Please contact me for contact details


  5. Roro

    I was relating the story of the incident to my kids today and they were really touched. We then decided to google the story and yep, they were also saddened by this. I was only 10yrs old then and would cry my heart out everytime I see those learners pictures in the newspaper. What a loss!!!

    • sabear

      I too have as ten at the time. I too have never forgotten.

    • Gaynor Paynter

      I was also 10 at the time, have never forgotten it and have told my kids.

  6. CVD

    Though I didn’t know any of the victims it is something that will always be on my mind – a day I will never forget – I was in Standard 5 (grade 7). Since then I have only once driven over the dam (many years ago). It was very eerie and I have never driven over it again.

  7. Leatitia Herbst

    Sal daardiedag nooi vergeet nie. Ek was in St 6. Op pad na die bus gewaar ek my boetie wat my kom haal die middag. As dit nie vir hom was nie, sou ek ook op daardie bus gewees het. ek dank die Hemelse Vader dat hy my lewe gespaar het, maar ek het vier maats in my klas verloor, Charl, Connie, Francois en Hennie.

  8. Susan Arnold (nee Van Niekerk)

    My skoolmaat van sub A Yolanda Pieters se suster is dood in die ongeluk Tanja Pieters, kan nie glo die ou maak sulke uitlatings, dit sal eindelik ‘n vernedering wees om hom by die grafte toe te laat – laat hy die hele begrafplaas skoonmaak.

  9. Too young

    I was in Grade 4 at Brixton Primary school at this time. I distinctly remember, that catching the bus was monitored by our teachers. Actually our headmaster was determined that he would ask our driver to check the bus in his presence. This lasted a few weeks until we received a newer bus to transport us. 42 children never grew up to be successful adults, and today we have a man who ridicules their deaths through Facebook. Surely there must be something that can be done? His comments are so hurtful it calls for more than just an enquiry by the human rights commission. To all those families that have lived for 28 years without closure or justice, now is your time to get justice!

    • South African Human Rights Commission

      SAHRC facilitates, welcomes public apology by Facebook “Racist” Khumalo

      February 2013

      The South African Human Rights Commission facilitated and welcomed the public apology and withdrawal of all hurtful racial statements posted on social media by the young unemployed journalist Zama Khumalo.

      On 24 January 2013, Khumalo posted a comment on his Facebook page relating to a school bus accident, which took place in the Westedene area of Johannesburg during 1985 where a number of school children tragically lost their lives.

      In response to statements made by two different individuals with access to the Khumalo’s Facebook page, he made the following additional statement:
      “On 27 March 2013, I will send out an invite to invite you to come to the Westedene Dam for a BIG Black Braai, (100% Blacks), fireworks, DJ – Black-People, celebrating their death.. and “we will always celebrate the death of whiteness”.

      The Commission received thirteen complaints against Khumalo from 6th to 14th February 2013, for these comments made.

      The Commission today headed a mediation session between Khumalo and some of the complainants following his racist remarks.

      The meeting was attended by the legal representative of Media 24 Limited who are also the complainants in this matter, representatives from the Commission, including its CEO, and the respondent, Mr Khumalo.

      The Commission explained the nature of the meeting to Khumalo and the other attendees and the mandate of the Commission in terms of its constitutional obligations.
      Khumalo was guided through the form and nature of mediatory proceedings. He was advised that the meeting was not intended to be an adversarial hearing with the objective of determining or apportioning blame, but was instead aimed at reaching a consensus in line with principles of reconciliation, directed at understanding motives, perception, nation building and interests.

      Khumalo was provided an opportunity to, among others, provide a background of the events which led up to the posting of his comments on Facebook, his personal experiences including the public response which it had elicited, to express his feelings of remorse and regret towards those affected.

      This was with the aim to permit a process which encouraged constructive, responsible forward growth and understanding; to convey and confirm the relief sought by complainants; and to reach agreement regarding the terms to be included in a settlement agreement, finalised by the respective parties and made public through the Commission.

      Khumalo expressed acute feelings of remorse and regret about the hurt caused to those affected, to Media 24 Limited and the general public.

      In his words Khumalo said:
      “I (Zama Khumalo) hereby tender my summary and unequivocal apology to the general public of South Africa, the Commission, each of the complainants and the individuals who were either directly or indirectly affected by the tragic Westedene bus accident including those families who lost loved ones. I acknowledge the hurt and pain that I have caused as a result of the comments made on Facebook, which were made in a state of anger and disappointment. I therefore truly and genuinely apologise for making such statements and I accept the terms of the agreement as more fully set out herein and also undertake from this date onwards to refrain from, by word and / or by deed, conducting myself in a manner associated with hate and hurtful speech or racism such as that contained in my previous comments.”

      • CVD

        Yes Right? I believe every word “not”. Wonder who really wrote the above. Lets face it if you are only sorry because you were in trouble.

  10. Trish Gamble

    I was one of the nurses in the trauma unit of JG Strydom the day that happened. There are no words to describe what I saw and felt – we battled for hours to resus some of the children – some successful but many not. I barely speak to anyone about this day as it is probably the worst moment of my nursing experience.
    The Sandy Hook shooting in CT, USA brought back the memories of the many parents and families waiting for news of the children – and the horror of having to go out and tell them their child or in some cases children had not made was terrible.

    • David van der Merwe

      Hi Trish, my mom was Sister van der Merwe at JG (school clinic) at the time. She was on her way home (would also have traveled past the dam). She returned to the hospital to assist as she knew all the kids at the local schools.
      That night none of us went to bed and it left a lasting impression on her.

  11. Serika Mulder (Niehaus)

    Ek het ook ‘n vriendinnetjie verloor met die ramp, Henriette Botha. Dis nou nog verskriklik as een van my kinders op ‘n bus moet klim. Ek was gister, 15 Oktober 2012, by die grafte, en tot my skok, was daar ten minste 4 van die grafstene wat nie uitgeken kon word nie. Ek weet nie watter een is hare nie. Dis ‘n skande dat mense goed van grafte af steel… ek wou net blomme vat….

  12. Talita Vorster

    I was born on this day 27 March 1985, my heart goes out to all the family’s and survivors each and every year when I’m a year older. May they rest in peace… God bless.

  13. Elmien Wood (Bellingan)

    My brother Anton Bellingan was one of the “lucky” ones that was rescued. He was very ill and in hospital for a long time.I was in St 5(Gr 7), when it happened and I couldn’t travel on a bus when I started High school. I still think back to that day many times as we lost many friends.

  14. Eric Opperman

    My wife asked me out of the blue what Wolraad Woltemade’s horse’s name was. While looking for it I remembered the story of Pieter Koen. Only once I googled that did I notice the date… 27 March…

  15. Arlene Esterhuizen

    Wow, every year around this time I sincerely feel the pain of each of the families who lost a child… My youngest child was but a few days old when this happened. Our preacher lost his daughter Vinette Swanepoel during this tragedy and a few days after her funeral, he baptised my baby. My pain came 13 years later when I lost my David through a motorcar accident!! So every year around his BDay I am also reminded of the pain of these parents – I know what they feel like and my heart goes out to each and everyone of them. God Bless… time heals but never takes away the emptiness and pain!! It does get better but it never leave you …

    • Annaline Steffen

      Hi weet julle miskien waar ek vinettie swanepoel se pa en ma kan op spoor hulle was ons dominee gewees

  16. Dr Damion Duvahldohr

    Today it’s been 27 years.

    Rus in vrede Vories. You are are still not forgotton. Will NEVER be!

    Jackie I miss you. Every day. Still keeping our promise. Rest in peace kiddo. Love you endless. Johann xxx

    Those of us that are still “surviving” – Sterkte!. Let’s make them proud . . . .

    • Adele

      I salute you.

  17. Ryan Tucker

    My mom was at that school when she was young and she too lost a friend. I am turning 16 this year and I travel by bus every school day to get to school, so I know what it could feel like to be one of them just casually catching the bus, not knowing that that was the bus I would die on that day…

    The story that my mom told me of it and with the research I have done on this disaster, I was quite touched, so, I am going to write a poem on it. In honour of the kids that died that day. [ Webmaster: Ryan’s poem has been uploaded and can be read here ]

  18. Danielle Kylie

    I am writing an article on emergency exits in buses and came across this article. I pray something like never happens again. Rest in Peace.

  19. Bianca Horn

    I am searching for any family of Riana Horn that passed away on this very tragic day. Riana is my balted father in laws sister and we are seeking the rest of the family. Please contact me if you have any information.

  20. Brenda

    A day never forgotten.

  21. Sharon Lourens

    Ek was in st6 gewees, het bus gemis oor huiswerk boek by skool was, het oppad huistoe agter die bus gestaan toe my vriende uitgehaal was. Die herhinneringe is nog vars en hartseer en ek huil nog baie daaroor. Erika was my maaitjie.

  22. Edmund Verwey

    I remember that day very well. It will haunt me forever. It was all over the radio, news, TV. Very tragic and very, very sad.

  23. Yolande Nunes

    Hi. I was in Gr 8 when the tragedy happened. I was in the bus in front of the one that went into the water. I lost my childhood friend, Francios du Toit, on that day. The memories will always be a part of my life.

  24. Marijke Deysel

    Ek het vanoggend op Beeld se webblad gelees van ‘n skoolbus wat in ‘n dam in gery het en daar is reeds 14 kinders dood. Dit het baie herinneringe van daardie dag in 1985 terug gebring

  25. Maril Dias

    I was 9 when this tragedy happened but still remember it like it was yesterday. I was telling my fifteen year old son about when I decided to Google it. That day was terribly sad and the loss of these beautiful souls reverberated throughout South Africa. Yes there was political unrest, but on this day, much like the 1976 tragedy, most of South Africans joined in their grief. The children’s faces are haunting but I am so glad that have you have created somewhat of a memoriam for them. May their souls rest in peace and may comfort surround their parents all the days of their lives until they meet again.

  26. Erika

    Ek het toe dit op Onthou was net die laaste helfte gesien en vanoggend 25/05/2011 half 3 se kant die herhaling gekyk. Dit het letterlik my hart oopgeskeur. Ek is 2maande na die tragedie gebore en ‘n mens besef eers as hoor hoe daai ouers gevoel het, toe hulle geen idee gehad het waar hulle kinders is nie hoe naby jy as ‘n ouer aan jou kinders moet wees. Die gedeelte van al die liggame wat toe gegooi is met komberse was baie hartseer. So ‘n mens kan nie sê ‘sien jou vanaand’ nie want jy weet nooit of daar n vanaand gaan wees nie. “Laat elke sekonde tel” wat jy saam met jou kinders het, dis wat ek doen. Dankie vir ONTHOU dit was regtig n wake up call gewees.

  27. Kobus van Zyl

    Ek bid dat die Hemelse Vader elkeen van julle sal toevou in Sy genade en dat Hy elke hart en elke wond sal genees. Blessings

  28. Bianca Ras

    My cousin Karen Erasmus died on this bus and was wondering if anybody knows any of her family or friends. This accident happened a few months before my birth and my family lost contact and we would really like to try and find them.

    God bless the parents who lost their children in this accident our prayers are with you.

    • Linda

      Hi Bianca. Did you manage to establish contant with Karen Erasmus’ family? If not, you can contact me for details. Regards.

  29. Hennie

    Ek was op laerskool in Johannesburg toe dit gebeur het, en was dieselfde ouderdom as van die slagoffers. Dit het so ‘n indruk op my gelaat dat ek tot vandag toe nog van tyd-tot-tyd spontaan daaraan terug dink. ‘n Paar jaar na die ongeluk het ek perabuis op die kinders se grafte in Wespark afgekom, en ek het lank daar gebly, na elk van die grafstene gegaan.

  30. Crystal Lamprecht

    Ek onthou daardie dag baie goed, het in die middestad JHB gewerk en my kinders was onderskeidelik 10,7 en 2. Dit het my laat besef hoe kosbaar hulle is en hoeveel meer mens die gawe van God moet aanvaar! My bede en gedagtes sal vir altyd by die ouers, familie en vriende van die kinders bly. Tyd heel wonde, maar die herrinnering sal altyd bly. Sterkte vir almal!

  31. Elizabeth Gerber

    I sometimes still can’t believe it really happened.

  32. Helena Murphy

    To all who like me was involved in the tragedy and those who lost loved ones. God bless you.

  33. Yolande

    Ek was 1 jaar oud toe die ongeluk gebeur het. My stiefma se niggie, Anna van Tonder is oorlede in die busramp. Dit was baie hartseer om dit te sien op Onthou (Kyknet). Soveel jong lewens wat weggeruk is. Ek dink aan almal wat daardie dag deurgemaak het.

  34. Michelle

    Ek en Anne-lize Botha was in Brandwag Laerskool in Bloemfontein van St.1 tot St.5 (gr 3 – 7). Ons was beste maatjies. Na St.5 het sy, haar ma en sussie Jhb toe getrek. Ons het elke week vir mekaar geskryf oor hoe ons die nuwe hoërskole vind. Ek het haar laaste briefie 2 dae na haar dood in die pos gekry. R.I.P. Lizzie, ek mis jou nogsteeds.

  35. Elize Venter

    Dit was baie hartseer herinneringe wat weer oor my gevloei het toe ek laas week Onthou gekyk het. Ter gedagtenis aan ons vriende/vriendinne wat ons verloor het. En dankie aan Hennie Botha dat hy n plekkie vir hul herinneringe beskikbaar gemaak het.

  36. Mari

    Ek het nie woorde nie, dis asof die kinders se gesigte spook. Wat ‘n tragedie…

  37. Berdine

    Ek het ook gisteraand die program Onthou gekyk, en dis die eerste keer wat ek van die ramp gehoor het. Ek was 1 jaar oud toe dit gebeur het. My hart breek vir die mense wat dit beleef het hetsy familie, vriende of slagoffers.

  38. Karien Hoeksema

    My hart was stukkend gisteraand, toe ek die program “Onthou” gekyk het, om die kindertjies so op die straat te sien onder die lakens en die ouers wat geskok toekyk en na hul kinders soek, al my liefde en gedagtes na die ouers wat die tragiese dag herleef…

  39. Yolande Botes

    Ek is 47 jaar oud en het twee kinders – 14 & 19. My hart was aan skerwe gisteraand terwyl ek “Onthou” gekyk het en ek het net weer besef watter kosbare juwele ons kinders is. My wese het gevul met dankbaarheid vir my twee Godgegewe wonderwerkies. Aan die ouers van die Westdene dam …… Julle is BAIE spesiaal om hierdie ramp te moes verwerk en jul kinders op so jong ouderdom, op so ‘n wrede manier aan die dood moes afstaan. Ek dink aan julle.

  40. Leandri Kirsten

    I watched the show on kyknet on DSTV last night. I was only 3 years old when this happened and my parents told me later of this disaster. I am now 27 with 2 children myself and can only imagine how these parents must have felt. My condolences goes out to all who lost a loved one!

  41. Johann Pietersen

    Kyk na “Onthou” DSTV Kanaal 111 (Kyknet) op donderdae om 21h00, dit is ‘n dokumenter oor alle rampe in ons land. Die busramp sal een van die dae hierop herdenk word.

  42. Marinda

    Ek was in st 7 (graad 9) in afrikaans hoër germiston toe ons dit gehoor het. Ek het die volgende oggend nog gehuil as ek iets daar oor op die radio hoor.
    Ek het ook daarna glad nie op ‘n dubbel decker bus geklim nie – tot vandag toe hou ek nie van hulle nie

  43. Firoz Dawood

    I was very young when this happened but I can remember how sad my parents were. It was big on the news.

  44. Fahiemah Ganie

    I now live in Sophiatown, however I remember watching this tragedy from Cape Town when I was in Grade 8. Some of the pupils were my age, I remember how the older folks cried when they watched it on the news.

    Every time we drive over the dam, I tell my 2 teenage daughters about the tragic accident which claimed the lives of so many children. May they Rest In Peace.

  45. Carike

    Today almost 24 years ago and I’m still thinking of that day (Westdene disaster). I used to live in Westdene and 3 of my friends lost there lives. Albertus Owenkamp, Anna Blignaut and Francois du Toit. they where my class mates and friends I have never forgotten them and always think of the time when we played together.

  46. Des van der Merwe

    I was in St.7 (grade 9) that year in Vorentoe. Will never forget that tragic day!!!

  47. Mary Gous (nee Kruger)

    Hi, can anyone help? I am looking for my cousin Alice Rousseau she also lived in Westdene and also use to drive on the bus. Her mom and dad divorced when she was small and we lost contact. She is in her 30s and her mom is Alice de Koning. Please let me know if you know her. Kind regards Mary.

  48. Mark Friedman

    I visit the west park cemetery on a regular basis to visit my wife’s parents and brother in the wall of remembrance and every time I go there I always take my 5 year old daughter and show her all the kids that lost there lives on that day. Oh so sad to see the loss of so many children. Our thoughts are with all the parents of this incident.

  49. Engela (born van Schalkwyk)

    I lost a lot of friends that day. If any of my old friends read this please pop me an e-mail. I still cry every time I think about that day.

  50. Allen van Greunen

    I was in gr 1 when it happened. My sister got on the bus, bringing her back home…
    Thank God she wasn’t there. As she got on it someone called her back for netball practice.

  51. Gideon Hugo

    I can not believe this happened over 23 years ago, feels like yesterday. Now that I have my own children I can relate to how the parents must have felt that lost their children on that sad day. May God bless them all. I feel very sad all over again, I lost a good friend Connie van der Westhuizen (Petrus) on that day.

  52. Johann

    As tragic as it was, we need to pay tribute to the men and women involved in saving a lot of lives that day. Petrus Koen was a hero for saving 6 or 7 students before his life was taken. The amount of deaths would have been greater without people like him.

  53. Sarah Vermaak

    I have just recently moved to Westdene, and was told of the tragedy by my old neighbour who still recalls the tragedy as if it was yesterday.
    I send my condolences to the families of these young children who still had so much life to live.
    May this tragedy teach us to be grateful everyday that we are alive.
    God Bless you all…

  54. Mary Kruger

    I was 14 years old when this happened. My cousin Alice use to ride on the same bus but for some reason not that day. Her father / my uncle is in the picture where they carry one of the children that drowned. He was Boeta Rousseau. He also lived close to the dam. It was so sad, he went to see if his daughter was there, I can’t remember all the details but he found out she was not but still stayed and helped. God bless the parents and every one that helped that day.

    I got to this site by trying to find my cousin I have lost contact with her a very long time ago. Her name is Alice (Rousseau). She use to do to Westdene Laerskool.

    “Gone but not forgotten” Rest in peace.

  55. Werner

    I was 1 years old when this happened and one of my friends older brother survived the accident.I remember it as if yesterday.

  56. Lou-Ann Anderson

    I think it is a really wonderful thing you are doing, to often in our country things that happen are conveniently forgotten my 14 year old daughter never even knew about the tragedy until the other day when she came to work with me and we drive over the dam.


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