This is a summary of an article that appeared in the Beeld on 28 March 1985

Photos used in this post was sourced from the Beeld but not all  (if any) of them appeared in the article.

The death toll would have been much worse if not for the actions of four unidentified men who jumped in the dam and broke windows with their bare hands. Many lives were saved this way.

The children who survived told of complete chaos during the accident. In the panic to get out children stampeded over each other, breaking chairs which in turn injured and stunned others.

Tragic scenes were witnessed at the J.G. Strijdom Hospital and the Johannesburg mortuary where hundreds of terrified parents sat waiting anxiously to hear what happened to their children. Mothers of victims became completely hysterical.

The double-decker bus hit the fence on the bridge within the first third of the bridge and went flying into the dam, coming to rest 10 meters from the wall, opposite the middle of the bridge, where it sank into mud at the bottom.

At the time of this article (and this is the case today), there was no clear cause for the bus to leave the road. The bus swerved left for some unknown reason. It was speculated that another car may have been involved in a collision with the bus but survivor Marcelle Wilsnach is quite clear in his mind about this:

“…there was absolutely no collision with any car. There were 4 buses who [sic] usually took pupils to the Westdene/Triomf area. We were in the last bus and there were no cars between our bus and the one in front of us. I can also categorically confirm that the driver went very fast that day. When a double decker [bus] drives fast, the whole bus shudders, to the extent that you have to shout above the noise to make yourself heard. That was certainly the case that day. Also, the bus didn’t swerve or anything like that. It simply went from a straight line, to a lazy turn, for lack of a better description…”.

Overall view of the scene at the Westdene Dam

Overall view of the scene at the Westdene Dam. Rescuers standing in the water on the roof of the submerged bus. Around 30 children were rescued from or swam to safety from the roof of the bus

Police divers and paramedic teams arrived within minutes (other sources claim civilian divers were first on the scene – or at least equipment supplied by civilians). A boat operated in the water for about 30 minutes to assist divers.

Some children were taken to safety during this time.

A large number of ambulances, emergency vehicles and helicopters arrived on the scene and emergency teams continued to remove trapped victims from the wreckage. Hundreds of bystanders looked on in horror as one young body after the other was brought to the surface.

Doctors on the scene fought to save the lives of children. According to one doctor, the entire tragedy must have taken mere seconds as some children still had sandwiches and chewing gum in their mouths.

Attempts to resuscitate Tanya Pieters

Attempts to resuscitate Tanya Pieters with her father (brown shirt) looking on. She was taken to hospital by helicopter but passed away at 6 pm the same evening (source: Belinda Kleynhans, sister)

An hour after the accident most of the injured had been transported to the hospital. Divers then removed bodies from the top deck of the bus and found more bodies in the bottom section. Attempts were made to lift the bus in an attempt to check the bottom section of the bus for more victims. The bus was still bogged down in the mud at this point.

Hydraulic rescue equipment, “Jaws of Life”, was also used to cut open sections of the bus and the last of the victims were removed.

It was around 7 pm when the bus was finally lifted from the water. The bus had no serious damage and the indicator lights were still flashing. The bell used to indicate that someone wants to get off at the next stop was ringing.

At Parliament, State President P.W. Botha expressed his deepest sympathy with the parents of the deceased. Mr Pik Botha, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed his condolences to the families of the victims. Other parties in the Volksraad (People’s Council) did the same.

An aid fund for the next of kin of the victims and a committee to coordinate the funeral arrangements was set up on request from Minister Pik Botha.

The driver of the bus, Mr W.P. Horn was still in serious condition at the J.G. Strijdom Hospital the night of the accident.

Lifting the bus to remove more victims

Later in the recovery operations, the bus was lifted off the bottom and out of the silt in an attempt to find the last of the victims. In this photo and the next, it is clear that the bridge didn’t have a sturdy railing or barrier.

The road had no railing

This angle shows dozens of nurses, emergency services personnel and police officers studying the recovery activities tensely. For emergency workers, this would be a day burned into memory – a call they wish they never got.

37 Comments

  1. Emma

    I did not exist at the time of the bus accident. I learned about this after I attended Vorentoe Hoerskool in the 2000’s. I seen the wall outside the principals office where many names were displayed and asked what was the reasoning for this. When i was told. I felt devastated. I cannot imagine what fear they experienced and what their parents went through. Also to those who survived, healing from injuries could of taken time. It makes me sad thinking about it but would still like more info about the bus driver losing control and and the reason why. It was really a tragedy.May they all RIP in heaven

    Reply
  2. DRW

    I was tutoring when this happened and I remember the collective shock that seemed to silence the class when it was announced. Many years later I photographed the graves for eggsa and can vividly recall walking down the line and shaking my head at the sheer vandalism that had been wrought on those graves. But I recall coming away from there in tears. I never knew any of those children but they have always been in the back of my mind since the accident. I revisited the graves in 2017 to rephotograph them and saw that they had been restored. Thanks to those responsible. May they never be forgotten

    Reply
  3. Angii

    I was only 7 at the time and never knew about this gut-wrenching accident. The story, the photos. Oh how my heart ached for the parents reading your post. Thank you for posting this as no one should ever forget them. and those that knew them might not be around anymore.

    Reply
  4. Elize Wessels

    At that time, I was 15 yrs old and it was one of the best years of my school years. Young, in love, lots of fun with my friends and very happy! At that stage one of the songs we were listening to was ‘Forever Young’ by Alphaville. The accident hit me very hard even though I was living 200kms from Jhb – did not know anybody! I then realised that those children will forever be young – I cried allot! Being so young, I understood the loss for the parents, sisters/brothers, family and friends. Every time I hear that song, I thing about those children who passed away! Even today my heart brakes reading or hearing about the Westdene bus accident.

    Reply
  5. Patricia

    Good day,
    Please comment in English as we want to comment and show remorse for the children who passed away in 1985.
    Patricia.

    Reply
    • Admin

      Hello Patricia. Thank you so much for contributing here. We want to encourage everyone to express themselves in a language they feel comfortable with. If you reply on a comment that you don’t understand and ask for an English version, I’m sure the person will be only too glad to try and translate for you. But I have also installed a translation button (see top right). If you click that you can choose to translate the page to English. Remember to click on “Original” when you are done so that you can then see the original English again. Let me know if that helps you 🙂

      Reply
    • jacob

      My teacher is one of the survivors

      Reply
  6. MJ

    I was 12 years old and in no way associated with the Westdene Bus Disaster but can remember the sadness in our home that day. 42 Angels in heaven.

    Reply
    • Jan Taljaard

      Or in HELL because of their racism

      Reply
      • Hennie Botha

        Jan, did you personally know all 42 children to make such a defamatory and disrespectful statement?

        Reply
      • Belinda Kleynhans

        Thank you Hennie. Jan, you did not know them at all, how dare you make a comment about something you know nothing about. They were all innocent children. I know for sure I will meet my sister again in heaven. Why do you even open this page if that is the type of comment you want to post. Have some respect for these children and their family.

        Reply
        • Judy007

          I reckon, this Jan guy is one of those people who believe if you are born white (because GOD created you thus) you have to beg for Jan’s forgiveness for something.
          Did those families ever receive the monies sent so that they should have received it pro-rata the children lost? I think there were families who lost 2. All the money should have gone straight to the families of the dead without question. That’s why the donations were sent.

      • Zacharias Venter

        If people would land up in hell because of racism every single human being will land up in hell. That is what we all deserve anyway. But there are some people who are saved from hell because Jesus descended into this dump and hell to retrieve and revive those who believe in Him. He gave his life to save people, like Pieter Koen gave his life on that day to save others. You seemed to be out of touch with the reality of God’s mercy and salvation in Christ, Jan Taljaard. Read Luke 13 and take note of what Jesus said about the 18 on whom the tower of Siloam fell.

        Reply
      • Gkenda Fawbert

        That is a very sick comment. You are referring to children who died.

        Reply
      • Admin

        Thank you for all your replies to this unfortunate comment. I won’t be approving any more replies as I think we’ve all said what needs to be said.

        Reply
      • Elizabeth

        I very much doubt these poor babies, were racists..
        I remember this day so clearly..may they RIP.. regardless of what you may think, we should not paint everyone with the same tainted paint brush.

        Reply
      • Meisie

        Jan, what are you drinking or smoking. What does this innocent kids has to do with racism?..clearly you on something. Get a life and stay of this page. The families of the kids don’t need your negative input.

        To all the families who has lost a family member on that horrific day. I apologize on behalf of Jan…may their souls R.I.P

        Even till this very day I can remember that sound of sirens echo whilst sitting in as a stenographer in a court case. Every body including the attorneys went silent. Court case was postponed immediately..it felt so cold, even the bright sun came to a blur..like the Johannesburg came to a standstill. I rushed out to the accident site as my brother was a paramedic on the scene…it felt cold, as you see the parents of those kids tries to find there child, hoping and praying that there kid is not under a blanket. It was the worst experience of my life.
        Paramedic stood there crying, cause they could not rescue the kids..I stood there not believing what I was looking at, I was at the scene for more than an hour before I realized how people was running, screaming, crying…everybody that could help was helping. It wasn’t till very late, sun was down when I saw my brother, exhausted, hungry and totally disgusted that they could not save all the kids…

        It was really hard on everybody that assisted on that day, and you could see the disappointment on there faces.

        To all the parent out there whom has lost a child on that horrifical day….My condolenes to you. May they forever dance with the Angels..till we meet again.

        Reply
  7. Gerda Botha

    Hi to all parents who lost their loved one during the bus accident

    If anybody know where I can reach or contact the father or Thelma Rautenbach I will much appreciate it

    Reply
    • Admin

      Hallo Gerda
      Ons is besig om vir jou navraag te doen. Sal jou laat weet sodra ons vir jou kontak besonderhede opgespoor het.

      Reply
    • Gerda Botha

      Hi Baie dankie. Sovêr ek weet het hy in Orkney gewoon en Thelma Rautenbach is ook daar ter ruste gelê. Sy naam is Johan Rautenbach en het ook ‘n seun met die naam van Quinton en ‘n dogter met die naam Rene gehad.

      Reply
      • Admin

        Gerda kan jy dalk vir my ‘n email stuur na ? Die adres wat jy hierbo lys werk blykbaar nie. Ek het inligting wat ek vir jou wil aanstuur.

        Reply
        • Gerda Botha

          Goeie dag

          Ek het nou eers opgelet dat ek die letters omgedraai het. Jammer vir die ongerief.
          Baie dankie dit sal gaaf wees as jy die inligting vir my kan stuur. Ek waardeer dit baie
          Groete

        • Admin

          Geen probleem Gerda, baie dankie 🙂

  8. Lunga Biyela

    I’m sure for a lot of people, this tragic accident still feels like it was yesterday. To lose a loved one in this way – actually in any way – is never a nice thing. And the survivors of the accident probably never go a day without thinking about what happened to their friends.
    I hope the families have found a way to find their peace, as losing a loved one can never be too long ago.

    Reply
  9. peet venter

    Sover ek weet het Mnr Peyper selfmoord gepleeg met cloroform in 1975.

    Reply
  10. Lynette McCaw

    I remember when it happened but this kind of tragedy only hits you when you have your own children. My sister and I was for only 1 year in the Westdene Primary School but I was already 22/23 when the accident happened.

    Does anybody remember a male teacher that committed suicide at the primary school in around 1973ish?

    Reply
  11. Yolande Nunes

    Dit voel soos gister toe die bus in die dam ingery het. Ek was in St 6 en in die bus voor daai ene. My beste vriend van kleintyd af, Francois du Toit, is in die busramp dood. Ek mis hom. En ek dink vandag net weer aan ALMAL wat deur hierdie groot tragedie geraak is. Yolande Nunes.

    Reply
    • marli Pelzer

      Hi daar Yolande Nunes, ek is so jammer om te pla maar ek moet n projek doen op iets wat in geskiedenis gebeur het, en ek wou dit graag op die Westdene Dam busramp doen en ek wou vra of ek jou nie dalk kan kontact vir n kort interview waarin ek jou net n paar vra kan vra. Ek wil nie pla nie so as jy nie kan nie dan is ditreg, ek sal kan verstaan dat dit n sensitiewe deel van jou lewe is. As jymy kan help asseblief kan jy my kontak op my email, .

      Dankie so baie, ek hoop dit sal reg wees.

      Reply
  12. Tom Watson

    I was a young Ambulance professional at the time and was the second vehicle at the scene. I am still involved in pre-hospital medicine,and have become a full time advanced life support paramedic. I will never forget this call as long as I live,and only wish that we could have done more for the children involved at the time. Although it was such a long time ago, it is still very vivid in my mind’s eye. May they all rest in peace.

    Reply
    • Max Steinbach

      Hi Tom! Long time!

      I, too, was one of the first on scene. I was the Civil Defence (now Disaster Management) Ops Manager at the time. I was tasked to organise all communications between the scene, the hospitals and the mortuary. I also arranged the cranes which eventually retrieved the bus. It was the worst and saddest day of my life! I’ll carry those images to my grave. RIP.

      Reply
      • Claudette van Rensburg

        Hi Max,

        I work for a publication: Fire and Rescue International.

        Do you think it would be possible to conduct a telephonic interview with you on the rescue-operation involved during the Westdene Bus disaster?

        Many thanks,

        Claudette

        Reply
      • marli Pelzer

        Good evening Max Steinbach, i am so sorry if i am bothering in any way. i am just replying to find out if there is any way that i could by any chance have an interview with you, telephonically preferably, so that i can ask a few questions on the Westdene Dan accident. i know it was a long time ago and is a sensitive topic, but my school has assigned us with an Historical Investigation and i have found and interest in this topic but i need people to interview and as someone who was first on the scene i believe you would be a very good interviewee. if you are not possible to help it is completely undesrtandable as it was a long time ago and was a very sensitive tragic occurance. please let me know on my email, , whether you will be able to help me or not.

        thank you for your consideration.

        Reply
  13. AK Loubser

    It’s only as a parent yourselves that you can try to imagine the pain and hardship of the losses of such young lives. Even almost 30 years later, the article strikes me.

    May their young souls rest in eternal peace. May their parents have found peace by now, and experience and serve God regardless.

    Reply
  14. jackie

    Mercy on his chlid who died 2 weeks later after being knocked down by a car. God bless her

    Reply
    • Elize Venter

      Did not realize that it was such a short period after

      Reply
  15. Yvonne Binneman

    Even before we lost a child my heart ached for the parents, siblings and grandparents of the children in this terrible disaster. Unfortunately, we found that time is not a healer, the hole in your life and heart just gets bigger every day. However, I hope you all have found healing, peace and tranquility. Yvonne and Steve

    Reply
    • Amerin

      I’m so sorry for the people that died in this article I wish this had not happened.

      Reply

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