Bloemfontein – At least 19 people have been confirmed dead after a Shosholoza Meyl passenger train crashed into a truck and another car near Kroonstad, in the Free State, resulting in a billowing blaze, according to authorities.
The head of the province's Emergency Medical Services and Forensic Pathology Services said in a statement on Friday that they had confirmation of the death of eight men, five women, four girls, and two undetermined individuals.
The deadly incident took place on Thursday, resulting in several injuries as the train burst into flames after colliding with the two vehicles.
"A fire had broken out in one of the carriages and had begun to spread," ER24's Russell Meiring said in a statement after the accident. He added that paramedics had found several carriages on their sides.
According to the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR), "the truck, which was hauling two trailers, was dragged on the railway line for about 139 metres, resulting in the derailment of six train coaches".
Mondli Mvambi of the province's health department said there was initial confusion over the number of dead bodies found on the scene, leading to reports of different figures.
"The problem is that the numbers are being inflated because initially, it was body bags that were being counted, not necessarily people's bodies. The body bags contain mortal remains which are then sent to a lab and reconstructed into full bodies," he explained.
He told News24 that rescue operations had been halted.
"The work is done. The only team remaining at the scene is Prasa's [the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa] team that are removing carriages and starting to reconstruct the railway," he said.
The spokesperson said a 14-year-old boy, with multiple fractures, was the only victim still recovering at Boitumelo hospital.
Mvambi added that a multidisciplinary team would meet on Monday, January 8, to calculate the total death toll and establish the identities of those who died.
The police's Brigadier Motantsi Makhele told News24 that a culpable homicide case had been opened, but that no one has been arrested yet.
"That will depend on the investigation," he added.
Meanwhile, the RSR has launched a preliminary investigation into the crash, saying that it will release preliminary findings on Monday.
It is also in the process of establish a board of inquiry to look into the cause of the accident, with the aim of preventing future accidents.
Those who are looking for information about their loved ones have been urged to contact Shosholoza Meyl's emergency number on 011 544 9623.