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Girl, 8, only survivor of bus crash that kills 45 Easter pilgrims on South Africa’s deadly roads

Published: March 29, 2024, 12:40pm
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In this image taken from video provided by eNCA, a bus carrying worshippers headed to an Easter festival plunged off a bridge on a mountain pass and burst into flames in Limpopo, South Africa, on Thursday, March 28, 2024, killing multiple people, authorities said.
In this image taken from video provided by eNCA, a bus carrying worshippers headed to an Easter festival plunged off a bridge on a mountain pass and burst into flames in Limpopo, South Africa, on Thursday, March 28, 2024, killing multiple people, authorities said. (eNCA via AP) Photo Gallery

MMAMATLAKALA, South Africa (AP) — An 8-year-old girl was the lone survivor after a bus full of pilgrims making their way to a popular Easter festival in rural South Africa slammed into a bridge on a mountain pass and plunged more than 150 feet into a ravine before bursting into flames, killing all 45 others onboard.

It was a tragic reminder of how deadly South Africa’s roads become during the Easter period, when millions crisscross the country during the long holiday weekend. Authorities repeatedly warn motorists of the danger and had issued multiple messages urging caution just a day before Thursday’s horrific crash.

The girl somehow survived after the bus carrying worshippers from neighboring Botswana careened off the bridge and caught fire as it hit the rocks below, according to authorities.

The girl was in a stable condition in the hospital after being admitted with serious injuries and was “in safe hands,” an official with the local health department said Friday. Details of her injuries were not released.

Forensic investigators retrieved what they believed were 34 of the 45 bodies but couldn’t be certain of the exact number, reflecting the gruesome nature of the crash. Many of the victims trapped inside the bus were burned beyond recognition, authorities said.

Dr. Phophi Ramathuba, an official with the Limpopo provincial health department, said only nine of the bodies recovered were likely to be identifiable.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the victims, who appeared to all be from Botswana, were on their way to the rustic town of Moria in Limpopo province for the Easter weekend pilgrimage that attracts hundreds of thousands followers of the Zion Christian Church.

The church has its headquarters in Moria and it was the first time the full pilgrimage was being held since the COVID-19 pandemic. Worshippers flocked to the small town which features a giant star — the church’s emblem — and the words “Zion City Moria” painted in white on a hillside.

The church was formed in South Africa in the early 1900s as a Christian denomination that also retains some African traditions. It has an estimated 7 million followers across the southern African region.

Ramathuba said South African authorities had asked church leaders from Botswana to come and help identify the victims.

Good Friday and Easter Monday are national holidays in South Africa and many of its neighbors, when millions travel into, out of and across the nation. For some South Africans, it’s a chance to return to their home towns and villages from jobs in the cities. Migrants also travel back to their home countries to see family. Some, like the pilgrims that died on Thursday, make religious trips.

Road travel can be treacherous; South Africa’s Road Traffic Management Corporation reported that 252 people died in road crashes between Holy Thursday and Easter Monday last year.

Authorities said it appeared the bus driver lost control and the vehicle slammed into the barriers along the side of the bridge and then went over the edge. The driver was among the dead.

South African Minister of Transport Sindisiwe Chikunga was in Limpopo province attending a road safety campaign when she was informed of the “devastating news” of the crash, according to the national Department of Traffic.

Ramathuba said she had been at an Easter prayer meeting when she was called to the crash scene on the Mmamatlakala bridge near the town of Mokopane, which is about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the South African capital, Pretoria.

“I attended the scene of the accident, but now our focus as the health department is on the brave little survivor. She is in safe hands in a hospital with experts looking after her,” Ramathuba told reporters. She declined to give details of the child’s injuries, but authorities released a photograph of the child lying in a hospital bed and being examined by a doctor.

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Ramathuba also declined to say if the child’s parents or other family members were on the bus, saying authorities needed time to trace and inform families of the dead, who were mostly in Botswana.

Meanwhile, forensic investigators worked through the wreckage amid the rocks and steep cliffs. At least 11 bodies were believed still inside what was left of the charred bus, which was almost crushed flat.

“We were at the scene,” said local resident Simone Mayema, who said he was one of the first to arrive after the crash. “We tried to help (but) there was nothing we could do because there was flames.”