Six die of sewer methane gas

Durban naval base, near the fatal sewer methane gas incident.
Durban naval base, near the fatal sewer methane gas incident.

Three South African Defence Force members died of sewer methane gas in Durban while trying to rescue three contract workers from a sewage pit.

SANDF Brigadier-General Mafi Mgobozi said contract workers for the Department of Public Works were working in the sewage pit at the naval base on Friday 17 February.

They screamed for help. Three SANDF members who heard the cries went down the sewage pit to help, but they were overcome by the sewer methane gas fumes.

All six died on the scene, and 26 others were injured. Mgobozi said the army was still in the process of determining what type of gas had leaked, and how the 26 others were injured.

Investigations may include compliance to General Safety Regulation 5: Work in Confined Spaces, which provides for certain work procedures; and on the nature of methane, which has no odour.

Methane gas exposure often leads to muscle cramps, due to replacing oxygen molecules in the blood stream, and is potentially fatal.

Mixture of methane gas with some other explosive gases, such as fuel, may lead to spontaneous combustion in confined spaces.

The fatal incident highlights the risk of explosions due to the possibility of fuel leaking into sewage lines, and the need to locate fuel tanks and bund runoffs clear of drains that may lead to sewage lines.

A government news release said “a gas explosion” at Durban harbour had claimed the lives of the six men in a sewerage pit at the Natal Naval Base in Bayhead, Durban.

The Presidency said that it was believed that the three soldiers rushed to the pit to try and assist the Public Works (DPW) staff members [other sources identified the men as contract workers] who were struggling to breathe underground.

Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Maphisa-Nqakula said the incident happened “when we were preparing to join the SANDF in Durban for the Armed Forces Day celebration which also marked the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi vessel”.

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant sent her condolences to the families of the six that died in the accident and said the department’s inspectors were dispatched to the scene to conduct an investigation into the cause of the accident.

“The accident involves inhalation of sewer methane gas by workers who were conducting repairs to a pumped storage in a pit of about 5 metres deep.

“About 21 Navy officers who tried to rescue the workers were rushed to hospital as they were also affected by the gas,” the DOL said.

“The Minister wishes to assure the public that measures are currently underway to prevent further loss of lives. Investigations into the matter are currently underway.”

Paramedics said six people died and 26 other people were injured in the freak accident. ER24 spokesperson Russel Meiring said paramedics had arrived on the scene and found rescue teams already near the sewer pit.

“Rescue teams had already retrieved the bodies of six men from the sewer pit,” Meiring said.

“Paramedics assessed all six men and found that they showed no signs of life. Unfortunately, nothing could be done for the men and they were declared dead on the scene.”

Meiring said the patients were treated for their injuries and thereafter transported to various hospitals in the area for further treatment.

Rescue Care Paramedics spokesperson Ceron Lennox said paramedics and other emergency services arrived on the scene at around 11.40am and found that rescue personal had already retrieved the bodies of six people from the pit.

Lennox said that they had already died before paramedics arrived. “They were declared deceased at the scene.

Twenty-six other people had sustained minor injuries and were treated on scene before being transported to a nearby hospital for the further care that they required.

Lennox said that the exact events leading up to the incident were unknown and authorities were on the scene to investigate.

Transnet National Ports Authority said it was aware of the fatal incident, which falls outside of the Port of Durban land area.

Sources: Adv Raynard Looch, Defenceweb.

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