Tourist tunnel trauma

The Write Girls in the tunnels before disaster hit them. From left are Erika Hauptmann, Carole Armstrong-Hooper, Lynn Rowand, Caroline Gilbert and Susan Herrick.

Concerns about the maintenance and safety of the tunnels under the city centre have been raised by those who were injured when a gush of water rushed through one of the tunnels during a tour.

Eight adults and four children were injured in the incident which happened on Saturday June 10.

ER24 spokesman Werner Vermaak said medics and doctors were called to the scene at the Castle of Good Hope, where they were escorted by guides to the people involved. “It is understood that a group of tourists were on a guided tour when a large amount of water suddenly rushed through the tunnel they were in. Most of them were swept off their feet and sustained minor injuries. The tour guides calmed them down and managed to help all of the tourists to a nearby exit where they waited for emergency services.”

Among the victims were Lynn Rowand and Susan Herrick of Kenilworth, along with other members of their group called Write Girls, who joined the tour as part of their research for their book about water and the drought.

But the tour took a turn for the worse when they were caught in the gush of water, and Ms Rowand, along with two others, were swept away with the current.

The tour company, Good Hope Adventures, in an email response to the concerns raised by the group after the ordeal, said that the water gushing through the tunnels was a result of an unexpected cloud burst over Table Mountain, which caused the water levels to rise quickly.

Matt Weisse of Good Hope Adventures, however, did not apologise, despite many traumatised and upset victims having contacted the tour company about their concerns.

Apart from the trauma experienced in the water, Ms Rowand and Ms Herrick questioned the upkeep of the tunnels and the safety measures in place, in case of an emergency.

“The feedback we got from the management and medics on the scene was that something like this has never happened before, so there was no Plan B,” said Ms Rowand.

Recalling their ordeal, the women said they had initially been sceptical about going on the tour due to the weather. “We were about 25 people on the tour, mostly locals, including four children.

“We asked the tour guide if it was safe after the storm, and he said the water had settled, so it was. He also mentioned that he had taken about 7 000 people down there, and it was safe,” said Ms Herrick.

She said after about 10 minutes of walking in the water, which was knee-deep at this point, they were suddenly told to turn around. Ms Herrick, who had been the last person in the tunnel, now was the one leading the tour. “The water was gushing the whole time.They told us to be careful, and all of a sudden, we heard screaming and crying from the back. I got to the original manhole and as I climbed the ladder, I turned around to help my friend, Carol, but as she tried to get up, someone knocked into her and she was swept away in the current. It was the worst sight of my life.

“When I got out there was no one around, so I started screaming for help.” Meanwhile, Ms Rowand, along with three others, were swept away from the group, and were submerged underwater for at least a minute, she said.

“I thought this was it. I thought I was going to die.

“Some of the ladders that people grabbed onto broke off. Suddenly we were swept again. People were hitting rocks and debris in the water. Our bodies were bruised, and we were not young. It was dark and the torches were out. People lost valuables. Our clothes and shoes were finished. It was so cold.”

She said they were eventually helped out of a manhole on the side of the Castle, and she was so disorientated she passed out on the side of the road.

Ms Rowand said that while no one could have predicted the unexpected cloud burst, it was perhaps negligent of the tour company to allow them into the tunnels considering the storm that hit Cape Town last Wednesday and the rainy weather which had followed.

The City of Cape Town confirmed that it was, in fact, unsafe for the tour to have taken place. City spokeswoman Hayley van der Woude said the water that enters the tunnel comes from the Platteklip Stream, which originates from the catchment above Highlands Avenue in Oranjezicht.

“Platteklip is a perennial stream with a minimal base-flow during the summer months. The average gradient of the tunnel is approximately 1:20. This means that the flow can reach dangerous velocities during and after rain storms. It is, therefore, not safe to enter the tunnel after or during a rain storm.”

Calvyn Gilfellan of the Castle Control Board, said the tunnels run through a national heritage site, which is part of the South African National Defence Force grounds and that the Castle Control Board did not run the tours.

“We have outsourced them to Good Hope Adventures and the Castle needs to give them access.

“We also get foot traffic to the Castle as a result of this.”

He said with regards to safety, the tunnels, like all tunnels in other cities, were not necessarily made for tours, but people wanted to explore them, so tours were created. “The tunnels are built for sewerage – to take water into the sea. They are not maintained because of this.

“We’ve asked the tour company to put measures in place such as hard hats, torches, ropes and emergency exits in case of an emergency. We’ve also asked them to take a medic with them on the tour at all times, which they have done. “The ladders which have broken off is an issue which has been raised before, and it needs to be addressed. But the tunnels are like an adrenalin rush for the adventurous at heart. That is why they are asked to sign an indemnity form.”

He said the Castle management had met with the tour company and asked them to cancel all tours until an investigation was completed and full safety report submitted. “We have also asked the tour company to meet with the people who formed part of the tour to follow up on their concerns and their injuries.

“He was very emotional about it because something like this had never happened before. He was unprepared but considering this, I think he will do the right thing. One incident like this is one too many.”

Ms Van Der Woude said while an inspection should be done by the City before anyone enters the tunnels again, they had not received a request to do an inspection.

The National Department of Public Works, which is responsible for the maintenance of the tunnels, did not respond to enquiries by the time this edition went to print.