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1949 train disaster commemorated

Wednesday, 16 November 1949 is a date from history that will always be remembered in Waterval Boven, as well as in many homes in neighbouring Mozambique. For it was in the early hours of the morning on this day 65 years ago, that 63 Mozambican mine workers tragically lost their lives in one of the worst rail disasters ever to have occurred in South Africa.

The 65th. anniversary of the disaster was marked with a sombre commemorative service attended by dignitaries and guests from both countries in Boven recently. Held partly at the site of the disaster – where a large granite memorial stone has been erected by the SA Dept. of Culture, Sports & Recreation – the event was remembered by all present and offerings were made to the spirits of those who lost their lives on that grim morning. After which, the second part of the service was held at the site of the mass grave containing the mortal remains of the victims, where wreaths were laid. A tragic as the accident was, the full story has never really been told and little is known of the details surrounding the disaster. THG was privileged to have interviewed. Rev. Carlos Matshinye (86), one of the few living survivors of the disaster, at the recent commemoration. Through the reverend’s memories, we were able to gain a unique insight into the true events of that tragic morning…

Earlier in that fateful week, more than 450 Mozambican migrant workers boarded train no. 513 in Johannesburg. They were in high spirits – they had received their pay and they were heading home for Christmas, laden with food, gifts and other luxuries for their distant families that they had not seen for so long. As the two powerful S.A.R. 15AR steam locomotives slowly pulled the packed train across the then Eastern Transvaal Highveld, every mile that clattered under the steel wheels brought them closer to home. After a brief stop-over in Waterval Boven on the evening of Tuesday 15 November, the heavily laden train resumed its slow eastwards journey again just after midnight. The weather had been bad for a number of days and the early hours of that fateful morning were no better. It was pitch-dark, cold and pouring with rain as the train began to cross the high bridge over the flooded Elands river, less than three miles from the station it had just left. Most of the miners were fast asleep.

From that point, it is not known for sure exactly what happened, for the driver of the leading loco-
motive, Welsh Hilly Green (57), was killed instantly in the minutes that followed. P.J. van Rooyen, the driver of the 2nd. locomotive was severely burned and the two stokers severely injured. What is known, is that both locomotives derailed on reaching the far side of the bridge and at least six carriages, packed with terrified miners plunged nearly 70 m. off the bridge into the icy Elands river – leaving another coach dangling over the drop on the Boven side of the river. In those fateful minutes, 63 miners and the driver lost their lives – scalded, crushed and drowned. Another 117 were injured, many seriously. Others, trapped in the carriage that swung perilously over the drop, fought to escape, many losing their grip on the rain-slick carriage and falling to their deaths in the river below.

The conductor, a Mr. Swart, who was fortunately required by his duties, to travel in the guard’s van at the very end of the train, clambered, shocked, down from the train and surveyed the utter devastation. Seizing the initiative, he ran as fast as he could back through the darkness in the direction of the station. After almost a mile, he reached a trackside telephone and breathlessly informed station staff of the accident. In short order, the railway workers sounded a siren to awaken the sleeping town and virtually the entire town rushed to the scene of the disaster to help in any way they can. In the days that followed, the survivors were treated for their injuries as the investigation got underway.

The unfortunate miners who lost their lives were buried in the mass grave that can still be seen today.
Welsh Green, the driver who also perished, lies buried in a quiet corner of the old Boven cemetery, taking the secrets of those final terrifying moments on train 513 with him to his grave. Part of the
inscription on his gravestone reads” Green: Welsh Hilly– Accidently killed in train accident”. The remains of the old bridge (built in 1906) still stand today, just upriver from the busy, modern rail
bridge and can be visited when in Boven. It is a ghostly, lonely place– and the echoes of the past
still seem to whisper up from the now tranquil river below.

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