Major explosion (BLEVE) in Boksburg claims many lives, injures firefighters, Ekurhuleni
A major explosion took place when a fuel tanker carrying 60 000 litres of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) exploded underneath a railway bridge in Boksburg, Ekurhuleni, on Saturday, 24 December 2022. The official death toll as of 12 January 2023 is 40 people, with some missing. The nearby Tambo Memorial Hospital was also damaged, leaving it unable to render assistance in the immediate aftermath, despite its proximity to the disaster site. An estimated 200 to 250 persons/responders were on scene. In this incident review, William Ntladi, JP von Benecke and Iain Sherwood provided the information as to the response. Fire and Rescue International extends deepest condolences to those people who have lost family members and friends in this incident. Our prayers are with those fighting the battle to survive after their injuries and to all the first responders who responded to this traumatic incident. We trust that your relevant organisations will provide the appropriate trauma counselling to lessen the mental scars that incidents of this magnitude may leave behind.
William Ntladi, district manager media liaison at Ekurhuleni Disaster and Emergency Management Services (DEMS), who was the media liaison on scene, reported, “Around 06h50am Saturday morning, firefighters from Boksburg Fire Station received an alarm of a truck on fire at Hospital Street in Boksburg under the subway bridge. The on duty coming shift responded swiftly to the scene with two fire engines, a tanker and a major pumper. Backup was requested from Wadeville, Germiston and Albertina Sisulu fire stations respectively.”
Ntladi said, “On arrival, a tanker and a light motor vehicle were found well alight under the two bridges, PRASA and Railway Street bridges running parallel next to each other”.
“Fire suppression was initiated by first arriving crews from Boksburg Fire Station. Unfortunately, the fire became stronger every time and signs of a boiling liquid expansion vapour explosion (BLEVE) started showing. The shift manager in charge evacuated her crews and together, they evacuated bystanders on scene. Within few moments, the explosion took place fatally injuring several people, others critically injured. Initially, six firefighters were also reported injured. Later in the afternoon, two other firefighters were also admitted to hospital for medical treatment. One fire engine, a water tanker, was involved in the blast and is written off. Several houses burnt down. Part of the Tambo Memorial Hospital casualty department was immediately identified to be damaged by the explosion. The two bridges are ripped apart causing extensive structural damages”, said Ntladi.
“A patient triage system was started as the entire hospital was overwhelmed by number of injured public members and hospital staff members. Other medical facilities around the city and outside the city as far as Chris Hani Baragwanath and Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital admitted patients. Various ambulance services used their resources to road transport the casualties and fly them to respective facilities”, he added.
He continued, “Eight people were declared deceased on scene. Two others died in hospitals bring the number to ten on the day of explosion. A secondary search sweep with a K-9 unit was conducted in search of unaccounted patients. Burning houses were extinguished by arriving firefighting teams from mentioned stations. The entire intersection had to be closed for vehicles and pedestrians’ movement for investigative purposes”.
“Our response included a major pumper and a water tanker from Boksburg Central Fire Station, while Wadeville Fire Station responded with a water tanker and major pumper, Germiston Fire Station with a major pumper and Albertina Sisulu Fire Station with a major pumper. Incident command System was activated onsite at the corner of Hospital Street and Cedar Avenue in Plantation, Boksburg. Ekurhuleni Disaster and Emergency Management Service’s regional manager, Johannes Riet was the incident commander.”
Gauteng Emergency Medical Services (GEMS)
JP von Benecke, deputy director: special operations at Gauteng Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) said, “At around 8h00 this morning myself and many other first responders headed to Boksburg for report of a explosions with multiple casualties. What drove I into was something like an apocalyptic nightmare. For the first time in my career, did I empty all my disposables, no bandages, Burnshield or IV fluids were left and we carry a lot. The sheer amount of burns and trauma and severely injured patients where overwhelming. So many people walking up to you with skin literally dripping of their bodies; so many dead; so many body parts.”
He said that a sweep by K9 SAR cadaver dogs was conducted on the day of the explosion, the search was, however, complicated by large amount of people contaminating the scene as well as smoke from burning bodies, parts and property as well as heat on the day.”
He added that on Thursday, 5 January 2023, a multi-disciplinary team returned to the blast site to resweep the area for evidence. “This included possible body parts of missing victims that we know was on scene as well as mechanical parts and shrapnel from the bridge and truck,” he said.
Von Benecke added, “The team consisted of SAPS detectives, SAPS K9 SAR, SAPS Airwing, Forensic Pathology Services, Gauteng EMS, SARZA and Mountain Search and Rescue (MSAR). Evidence collected was mostly shrapnel and mechanical parts that aid in the scene reconstruction. No additional human remains were found. The scene was handed over to PRASA on Tuesday, 10 January 2023.”
Von Benecke said that although the official death toll is 40 people, authorities are still in the process of identifying the reported missing victims. “Six injured are still critical and then we have around 30 who are still receiving regular wound care at local health facilities even though they have been discharged. A number of victims developed very bad sepsis on burn wounds and EMS had to subsequently collect them for regular wound care, said Von Benecke.
Iain Sherwood, national committee member at SARZA and field team leader during the incident, reported, “On Saturday, 24 December 2022, Hugo du Rand received a report of a gas tanker explosion in Boksburg that included video footage, map location and a GEMS request for SARZA to be on stand-by. At 08h18am Du Rand requested that Sherwood proceeded as rapid response for scene assessment. It was further requested by GEMS that SARZA prepare their mobile command post (MCP) for deployment at the scene. At 08h22am, Du Rand requested that Robert Izzett proceed to the scene while MCP would be dispatched from Paul Venter’s home in Parkview. Sherwood arrived on scene at 08h48 and met with Netcare Rescue and Extrication team at the Tambo Memorial Hospital entrance and proceeded to assess the scene and locate GEMS JP von Benecke. At 08h49am Robert Izzett arrived at the North side of scene and had located GEMS personnel.
Du Rand contacted SAPS K9 Search and Rescue through Lt Col du Plessis to inform him of the scene. A multi-agency WhatsApp group was created to facilitate improved communication on the scene between different role players.”
“The initial planning point (IPP) was located at corner of Hospital Road/Cedar Road, Boksburg and the incident commander (IC) from Ekurhuleni Fire was Johannes Riet. SARZA was then tasked to provide incident management and support. The first scene meeting was held with heads from all agencies on the scene to establish the current scenario and next steps. It was understood at the time that there was a further bomb threat made which possibly included the adjacent hospital but was later assessed by SAPS Bomb Disposal and found to a report from a victim relating to the initial gas explosion.”
“The containment of the scene by means of cordons proved to be difficult noting the size of the affected area and further SARZA resources were requested to assist with the mission. The necessary callout procedures were initiated and the team consisted of the following members: Iain Sherwood, Robert Izzett, Leon Fouche, Paul Venter (MCP), Willem Potgieter, Andrew Hoy, Chris Ralph, Dominic Pais and Mark Shute. Du Rand provided homebased support and logistics coordination to the JOC for the duration of the mission.”
“Venter arrived at the IPP at 09h50am with the MCP and it was agreed with the IC that the JOC should be relocated to the Hospital grounds close to Casualty Entrance. Due to the hospital being affected by the explosion, the evacuation of the hospital's trauma ward patients was required. A landing zone (LZ) was established with Izzett adjacent to the hospital grounds and various HEMS were on route to collect critical P1 patients from the scene. Further patients from the scene and hospital were transported by awaiting ambulances. The SARZA team assisted in the management of both the LZ and casualty evacuation during this phase.”
The SARZA team continued to support the various agencies during the course of the mission and logged the updates where possible as they were reported to the JOC.
“Hourly IC meetings were held and recorded with the available information and captured the necessary contact details for key personnel on scene. The SARZA team were deployed to various strategic positions at the scene to provide real-time updates to the JOC and advise the IC immediately for further planning. Numerous NGOs arrived at the JOC to ensure that with an estimated 200 to 250 persons/responders attending the mission, were hydrated and fed. Following the HEMS casualty evacuation operations being concluded, the LZ was converted to a victim’s family trauma support and field canteen/kitchen area for EMS personnel. Various officials including police commissioners, the Ekurhuleni Mayor and MEC arrived at the JOC to be briefed with the mission updates etc.
The status as at 18h27 on 24 December 2022 was as follows:
Totals transported initially:
P1 (Critical, life threatening): 20
P2 (Critical but stable): 5
P3 (Stable, walking wounded): 10
P4 - 7 on scene (1 P4 at Alberton, 1 P4 at Far East Rand, 1 at Pholosong): 10.
Total P4 =15 as reported at the time of this report 28/12/2022.
“Note: It must be noted that many numerous agencies took part in the mission and supported and executed their duties in various areas, situations and taskings as required. Our records are therefore not conclusive for every responding agency’s logs, communications and reports and must be read as supporting records to the information as we received, interpreted and logged accordingly to which we were aware of at the time.”
“At 15h35, all members were requested to return back to JOC. The team debriefed at 15h59 and departed the scene at 16h30. All members were confirmed home safe at 18h21. SARZA will arrange trauma counselling for all SARZA members that attended the scene.”
Du Rand said, “Interagency collaboration is very important to SARZA and especially on an incident like this one. We strive to build relationship with agencies in SAR and disaster management in advance in order to facilitate the best operational outcome for all involved. The hourly update meetings ensured everyone was informed and on the same page providing hands-on real-time updates on our mobile D4H incident management platform”
GEMS’ Von Benecke said that the following agencies and organisations were on scene: CoE Emergency Management Services, CoE Disaster Management, Gauteng Provincial Disaster Management, Gauteng Emergency Medical Services, South African Police Services (SAPS), SAPS Explosives Unit, SAPS Disaster Management, SAPS K9 SAR, SAPS Air Wing, Forensic Pathology services (Germiston), SARZA, Netcare 911, ER24, Hatzolah, Netcare HEMS, Halo HEMS, Rocket HEMS, FTC Modderfontein, NSRI and the EMS Chaplaincy. Humanitarian response included the Gift of the Givers, Red Cross, local CPF and Hope SA Foundation.
No stone will be left unturned in the Boksburg tanker explosion
In a statement on Thursday, 12 January 2023, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi, said “Today marks exactly 20 days since the fateful day that left all of us reeling from the untold anguish that befall the province and the nation following the tragic Boksburg tanker explosion incident. It leaves me numb that since the last update we gave on Wednesday, 4 January 2022, we have since lost three more people. This brings the number of the deceased from this terrible incident to 40 according to the latest update given by the police yesterday.”
Premier Lesufi added, “There are no words to adequately convey words of condolences to the families that are now having to deal with a 2023 they did not foresee. It will take time for the wounds to heal. We are ready to walk this journey with them to assist in whichever way we can.”
Update of those in hospital
“There are five people that are still in various hospitals ie Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, Pholosong Hospital and Thelle Mogoerane Hospital and 23 have been discharged. Our report is based on the confirmed numbers; it might change as we get more confirmations from the facilities.”
“With regards to the eight Ekurhuleni Emergency Medical Services personnel that were injured during the explosion, the status quo is still as per our last update. Six have been discharged, while two remain in hospital.”
Remedial work at Tambo Memorial Hospital
“Due to the urgent nature of the works, the Department of Infrastructure Development (DID) appointed a contractor on 26 December 2022 to repair the doors and windows at the Tambo Memorial Hospital. We can confirm that the construction work for the replacement of broken windows at the hospital, including the nurse’s residence has been completed. Some of the work is almost at completion stage, following delays because of the festive period break.”
“Due to the extent of the damage, the Casualty Unit at the hospital remains closed. DID maintenance team developed specifications and costing for the remedial works needed for the restoration work at the Casualty Unit. The specification and costing were approved by Gauteng Department of Health for DID to continue to appoint a contractor and commence with the works. A contractor was appointed on 4 January 2023; the anticipated date for the commencement is 9 January 2022, with a project duration of four weeks.”
“As the provincial government, we continue to stand with the many families whose lives have been changed forever by the tragic incident. This has not been an easy period, particularly for those who lost their loved ones. We implore our health professionals to provide the best care to those that are still on the road to recovery,”
Civil claim by families
“I am made to understand that some of the affected families are considering or are taking steps to institute a class-action suit. They are well within their rights to pursue whatever means of recourse available to them within our legal system. This, however, does not mean that Government must not pursue the matter to its logical conclusion. We owe it to the many lives that have been lost and the many people that have been injured, including the many affected families, to see to it that justice prevails.”
“Painful as this chapter is, it must end with justice being served. Justice being served means that there must be people held accountable for the tragic loss of life and families need to find closure. The provincial government continues to provide support to the affected families in the form of trauma debriefing services. The City of Ekurhuleni Community Development Workers (CDWs) are conducting door-to-door visits in the area to identify and refer affected families who have not yet received any assistance following the explosion.”
This is the first of our reviews. Fire and Rescue International will provide more from the first responders as to what can be learned from incident. From our discussions with the people, the teamwork between the various agencies were fantastic with most Gauteng-based units responding as well as a myriad of volunteers.
Sources: J William Ntladi, district manager media liaison: Ekurhuleni Disaster and Emergency Management Services (DEMS); JP von Beneke, deputy director: special operations at Gauteng Emergency Medical Services (GEMS), Gauteng Provincial Government