I have never written about this travel incident before nor even told more than 3-4 people about it, to this day it still brings a tear to my eye to remember it. It is the worst thing I have had to experience in the life I have lived. I can only call this story ‘The lady that got burnt’
Leaving Edinburgh after working and partying for 8 months was hard but it was also so exciting to head to South Africa and see Eilidh and Tracey again and to do some travelling with them. We had all met on our trip through the middle east and were so looking forward to travelling together again especially in Tracey’s home country.
I arrived a few days after Eilidh and was driven by Tracey’s sister the hour’s drive to meet up with them in Moussel Bay. As expected they were already on the wine and beer and ready to party. That was basically what we did for the next few days in the beginning of our trip up the garden route until we reached Port Elizabeth for a nights rest.
We started the drive to Grahamstown the next day late and were excited to be getting there for their big yearly festival when all the students graduate from university. We were in a real party mood and knew that rocking up to a party town would bring out the best and worst in the three of us.
Tracey always seemed to drive at a high speed but it also seemed normal when on the South African highways. On this day however it was a little more worrying when at 130kms per hour in the middle lane of a three lane highway the car started to wobble and swerve all over the place, luckily Tracey did a great job and got the car safely to the edge of the road. We were on a section of road built upon the side of a hill so there was little room to pull off the road before you were against the guard rail.
After assessing the damage to the car we saw that all we had to do was change a tyre and we would be away again, no problem as I had changed a lot of tyres and knew how simple it was. I had the girls stand at each end of the car and wave to other drivers to warn them that there was a problem and chocked the wheels of the car so that it would not roll back down the hill. It was a very freaky experience as at times I had to lay down to get under the car and have my legs out near the traffic lanes of the road.
Cars didn’t really see the point in slowing down or in trying to keep their distance from us, I found out after that some cars were driving at very high speed and within a few feet of where my legs were in the road. Thankfully we fixed the tyre and were back on our way after about 20mins, I started chain smoking the strong cigarettes I had as my adrenalin was pumping so much after the incident. It really was one of the scarier things I had had to endure, little did I know that less than 3 hours later it would seem like a holiday experience to what was to come.
We forgot the tyre incident, laughed about it and kept having our usual great time on the road. Eilidh as usual feel asleep on the back seat and I kept chain smoking and talking with Tracey to make driving easier for her. In the distance we could see some smoke over the road and brushed it off as a small bushfire which was not uncommon. As we got closer we realised that it was not a bushfire but a car that was on fire, still we brushed it aside and thought it had been an accident before and no need to panic.
Just seconds later we realised that the accident was not a thing to ignore, it had actually just happened and we were the first vehicle on the scene. We stopped and I Jumped out of the car to rush over and help, I still cannot remember whether I had put my shoes on first or just run barefoot through the broken glass. I came to the first vehicle and saw steam coming from its front and water leaking underneath, behind it was another car that was smouldering and had a small fire under the hood. I asked the guy at the first car what had happened and he said he was driving behind the car and suddenly it burst into a cloud of smoke, he rammed as he could not see where he was going, it then burst into flames.
I asked if he was OK as he had blood all over his arms and also as to what we could do to help. He told me that he had cut his arm busting the window open on the other car and dragging the kids out to safety, I looked across and saw two kids sat on the ground with a look of fear in their eyes and not making a sound. I asked him if there was anyone else in the car and he replied
‘I don’t care… they are black, I got the kids out and that is all I care about’.
I am not sure if the man meant to be racist or if it was the shock of the moment but being South Africa apartheid was still very real to many and it probably was his real thinking at the time.
I looked back to the car on fire and saw that the father was at the backdoor of the car and his wife, the kid’s mother, was trapped inside. The noises this man made are the sounds that bring a tear to my eye, It is a sound I had never heard before, never heard since and hope I never have to hear again. It was not a scream, and not a cry it was just a noise of pure desperation and anguish, truly an indescribably sound.
I rushed to the man and started to help him pull his wife out of the car, the heat from the flames was very intense and I noticed the man’s very black hands and arms had huge white patches on them, where his skin had melted away. We got his wife to the edge of the car window and I thought she was going to get out and left the heat to stand at a distance. As bad as this is to say, and it would be funny if not for the circumstances, the wife had such a big bum that when we pulled her to the edge of the window her bum was too big to pull over and the husband had to let her drop back in.
I rushed into help again and the same thing happened, I feel quite sad knowing that if had just stayed that bit longer and not worried about burning myself badly the lady then would not have had to experience what happened next.
As I stood back for the second time and watched her fall back in, the car made a ‘woosh’ sound and went up in flames even more and instead of seeing the lady and the flames behind her I was seeing the ladies face behind the flames. The flames were immense and she was stuck in them, I stood shocked and all I could think to myself was ‘Am I about to watch somebody burn alive’ and I didn’t know what to think to this thought. It was the worst feeling and thought I have ever had to think through. I could not even see the ladies face, I could only see the whiteness of her eyes and the complete fear in them. She did not make a sound, like the kids she just had the biggest look of fear in her eyes and was silenced by the shock
Not the husband though, he was now making those noises that I never want to hear again louder than ever, which snapped me back to the fact that we have to get this lady out. At the moment his last scream was heard all his strength was put into pulling his wife’s big bum over the car door and getting her to the ground. As he did I rushed over with someone else who had appeared and we dragged her off to safety, her body was smouldering, her clothes and shoes had melted to her body and still she made no sound just that look of fear in her eyes.
Luckily a nurse had arrived in another car that stopped to help and called an ambulance and immediately went to the lady, she had been looking after the kids until the mother was rescued from the car. Tracey and Eilidh were in shock over the incident and none of us knew what to say or do, there was really nothing we could do and I often wonder if that lady lived. In some ways I hope she did but in others I hope that maybe she didn’t! She was in a terrible state when she got out of the car.
I told Tracey and Eilidh that we should leave as there were to many people about already and there was nothing we could do to help. We went to the car and started driving off in silence, I continued to chain-smoke more than before and after 20mins Tracey asked me to drive as she was not feeling well.
We got to Grahamstown 2 hours later, pitched our tent, got a drink and sat and tried to talk about things other than the accident. None of it worked and we realised we had to go to bed and hope for a better day tomorrow, I was the only person that could even finish their drink that night, some things never change I guess.
We woke the next day and heard that we had gone to bed and missed the best party that Grahamstown had ever had in its history, yet we were not really that bothered about it.