On 27 March 1985, a yellow double decker bus transporting school children from the Vorentoe High School, left the road as it was crossing over the bridge of the Westdene Dam in Johannesburg. 30 Children swam to safety or were rescued from the rooftop of the bus. 42 Children died.
Bystanders and fellow school mates desperately tried to save the panicking children. Tragically some survivors died while saving others. The incident was declared a national disaster by the government of the day.
To this day, no-one knows exactly what caused the bus to leave the road and plunge into the dam. There were no obvious mechanical problems with the bus and the tyres appeared to be in order. There was no indication that the bus had collided with another vehicle immediately before going off the causeway.
The driver of the bus, Mr. William Horne, 41, was described by those who have travelled on his routes before, as an excellent and conscientious driver. Immediately after the incident, he told media that he could remember very little of the accident. There are some conspiracy theories floating around but it is very hard to believe that William Horne, a family man with 5 children of his own (between the ages of 10 to 18), someone who knew the children as he was their regular driver, would not have taken the utmost care in transporting them.
Even before the bus hit the water, some of the older boys tried to kick out the back emergency window, but they failed. Marcelle Wilsnach, now 41 and one of the lucky survivors of the Westdene bus disaster, last year (2010) relived the accident in the hope her chilling testimony [during a court case relating to emergency exits in busses] could aid in resolving faulty emergency exits. Wilsnach said she could remember the screams and feeling of utter disbelief as the bus plunged into the dam.
"Pieter Koen, another boy, and I climbed over the back seat and attempted to kick out the emergency exit windows, but if ever a myth was rudely shattered, it happened in that moment. None of the emergency windows even budged an inch. We stopped in time to grasp a final gulp of air and then the water was over our heads and it was silent."
A woman who lives nearby, and was one of the first on the scene, remembers the terrible screams as the bus went down, and then the terrible silence.
The local fire department had no diving unit at the time and the first divers on the scene were civilians. Firefighters attempted underwater search and rescue using their fire fighting breathing apparatus (SCBA). Rescue attempts were carried out by some of the children who had been on the bus as well as passers-by. Emergency services started arriving within a few minutes.
After the accident the Fire Department established a diving unit. It is no longer operational.