South Africa — Pietermaritzburg – Hailed as a hero and a legend, the Kokstad community in KwaZulu-Natal is mourning the loss of Bergview Colleges deputy principal, who died helping to fight a runaway fire on a neighbours farm.
Pietie Bronkhorst, 36, a father of three who lived on the Mariner Walk farm in Cedarville, died after sustaining 95% burns to his body while he was out with his father-in-law, Gerrie Nel, and other farmers trying to contain a runaway veld fire on a neighbouring farm, Intimi.
The farm belongs to Bergview Colleges owner Braam van Tubbergh and has been completely destroyed by the fire. He farms firewood and cattle.
‘Tornado of fire’
Bronkhorst, a mathematics teacher who was involved in rugby coaching and development, together with the other farmers, became trapped on the veld when a ball of flame blew towards them in heavy wind, which was likened to a tornado of fire, causing Bronkhorst to fall into the flames.
Seeing the danger, Bronkhorsts father-in-law had managed to load as many farmers and workers as he could into a bakkie to flee the inferno. Thinking that Bronkhorst was also on the bakkie, he drove off, not realising that Bronkhorst had fallen before managing to get onto the bakkie.
Nel barely managed to escape, and sustained burns on his face from flames that came in through the bakkie window.
When the group eventually realised that Bronkhorst was not on the bakkie, they made their way back to look for him and found him writhing in pain, lying on the ground. They then loaded him into the bakkie and transported him to a tarred road where paramedics from Rescue Medical Services were waiting for him. He was stabilised and then transported to Durbans St Augustines hospital. Bronkhorst succumbed to his injuries on Friday when he suffered multiple organ failure.
Fighting back tears, an emotional Van Tubbergh, who was the last person to speak to Bronkhorst at the hospital, said he was devastated.
His third last sentence to me was that he loved me. His second last sentence was that I must convince his father-in-law that it was not his fault and his last sentence was: We fought the fire. It tears at my heart. We were very close to each other. We saw each other every day. I was on holiday in Margate and got the call about what happened and I rushed to the hospital, said Van Tubbergh.
He said reports indicated that Bronkhorst and the other farmers had responded to a call for help from the East Griqualand Fire Protection Association (EGFPA) to combat the runway fire.
They had just put out the fire on the neighbouring farm, Melkfontein, when a ball of fire blew onto my farm and really spread. The fire was aggressive and the wind was very bad, with flames going up to 40 metres. Pietie and the other guys were higher up, and another ball of fire flew towards them and they were trapped between the burning veld and this flying ball of fire. Gerrie shouted at all of them to get onto the bakkie and drove off. One of my workers said he noticed Pietie and shouted for him. He said Pietie looked disorientated and started running, but there was no way out and he fell directly onto the flames, said Van Tubbergh.
EGFPAs Des Paton said weather conditions on the day were horrific.
We were stretched because there were so many fires on Friday, so we had to call for help from the farmers. It was terrible standing at the bottom and watching this ball of fire, like a tornado, go straight for where the farmers were. There was nothing anyone could do, said Paton.
Messages of condolences and support flooded the Facebook page set up for Bronkhorst and his family. Many messages were to wish the family strength through their ordeal, while others hailed Bronkhorst as a hero.
Pietie, you are our hero, a legend, read one post.
A memorial service for Bronkhorst will be held at the NG Kerk in Matatiele on Wednesday, while he will be buried at the Mariner Walk farm on Saturday, following a service at the NG Kerk, Cedarville.
He is survived by his wife, Zoe, and three children aged 6, 4, and 3.