Inside the KZN church tragedy where 13 people died

2019-04-21 14:10

Samkelisiwe Mzila was in high spirits, singing and humming gospel songs while at work on Thursday morning.

She was looking forward to taking part in Easter festivities at a Pentecostal church in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal to mark the death and resurrection of Christ.

Mzila was the personal assistant (PA) of Ulundi Local Municipality’s corporate services director, Zweli Dhlamini.

According to Dhlamini, Mzila had also applied for study leave next week to write an exam, as part of her studies in public administration through the University of SA.

“It was nice in the office on Thursday when I last saw her,” Dhlamini said.

“She was singing and humming gospel songs and was ready and looking forward to going to church for Easter.”

That same night, Mzila was among the 13 Pentecostal Holiness Church members who died when a wall of the building where they were sleeping collapsed as a hailstorm hit Dlangubo, near Empangeni, on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast.

Mzila’s eight-year-old son, who was sleeping alongside her, miraculously survived the tragedy and escaped from the rubble of bricks and mortar with minor injuries on his head, which needed eight stitches.

Dhlamini, who had worked with Mzila for six years, said that she sounded as if she had a premonition that she might not return to work.

“She told me that she had found a volunteer to stand in for her while she was on leave. She then also asked me if I would consider finding [the volunteer] a permanent job, even in the Expanded Public Works Programme,” he said.

“That startled me. I even asked why was she speaking as if she was not coming back,” said Dhlamini.

“I have lost a colleague who was like a daughter to me. I took her as my PA because I trusted her to deliver on her work. She was doing very well and was upgrading herself by studying for a degree.”

Dhlamini added that Mzila had a diploma in farm management. She had cherished the dream of owning a farm one day.

“Her life was progressing. She has left her mother with a beautiful house,” he said.

Thirteen congregants who were attending a Passover service died when a front wall of the church collapsed at about 10.15pm on Thursday.

Sixteen people who survived were admitted to Dlangubo clinic and Ngwelezane hospital for treatment.

Some were sleeping while others were preparing to sleep when the calamity struck.

Construction of the church was completed in 2001 and, according to its members, the building did not have any cracks or show any signs of shoddy workmanship.

KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Colonel Thembeka Mbele said an inquest docket had been opened. She said that 12 of the 13 people killed in the collapse were women, while the 13th was a boy.

Most of the church members who died came from Ulundi, Esikhawini and Maqhwakaza.

It was a melancholic atmosphere at the church yesterday afternoon when City Press arrived. Cars were streaming in as church members were huddled in small groups, commiserating.

Tents were being dismantled and pots that had been brought in for cooking the Easter feast that the church’s congregants were meant to enjoy, were being packed away – because all the weekend’s festivities had been cancelled.

In the building, mattresses and chairs were still strewn all over, some buried under the rubble.

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, who is a member of the church, told City Press that relatives of the casualties would identify the bodies on Friday.

“The families must just pray. The time had arrived and God had decided. In Jeremiah 29, verse 11, God says He has a plan for us. God says He knew us from the time we were foetuses in the wombs of our mothers, and when that time has come to take us,” Oliphant said.

The minister said the church would decide what to do about the building.

“We are waiting for a report from an engineer that will guide us whether to demolish or rebuild this building,” she said.

She added that her department would also investigate.

Bishop Moses Sibiya said he was in Mafikeng, North West, at the church’s other branch when he received a call about the disaster.

“I had just arrived in my room at about 10.20pm when I got a call that the wall had collapsed,” Sibiya said.

“The caller told me that the darkness made things difficult and they were using their cellphones torches to rescue congregants.”

The bishop had to cancel his programme in Mafikeng to attend to the disaster.

“It was even more frustrating that I could not get hold of my wife [Thandi Ngema] on the phone because of the commotion,” he said.

Ngema, who was at the church when the accident struck, said: “I am not sure if I will ever feel any pain greater than this.”

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August 18 2019