12 C
New York

Girl Who Survived South Africa Bus Crash Is in Stable Condition


Lauryn Siako is the rare 8-year-old who springs out of bed to get herself ready for church, her family said. She loves the singing, the dancing, the worshiping.

So when leaders of her church announced that they were resuming the enormous annual Easter pilgrimage to church headquarters in South Africa this year, after a four-year hiatus for Covid-19, Lauryn pleaded with her mother to let her go for the first time.

Lauryn and her grandmother boarded a bus in their home village of Molepolole, Botswana, on Wednesday night with 43 fellow members of the St. Engenas Zion Christian Church, excited for the experience of a lifetime.

But by the following morning, Lauryn was the only one of the 45 passengers still alive.

The driver lost control of the bus on a sharp turn, and it careened off a high overpass on Mmamatlakala Mountain in northeastern South Africa, plunging 165 feet into a rocky ravine and bursting into flames. The driver and all of his passengers perished, except, inexplicably, the stringy girl who had just received her passport a week before the trip and had guarded it closely. She escaped with minor lacerations, South African health officials said.

“How did she come out of that bus?” Lauryn’s tearful mother, Gaolebale Siako, said on Friday, sitting in the modest home where Lauryn had lived with her grandmother in Molepolole, repeating a question she has been asking herself over and over.

“It’s hard to explain,” she added. “I’m hurt that I lost my mom and other people, but I’m also comforted knowing that my child is alive.”

As investigators continued searching for remains and answers as to what happened on Friday, church members questioned how the bus ended up on a treacherous, winding mountain road that they had never taken before in many journeys to the church headquarters in Moria, South Africa.

Kabelo Joseph Selome, a local ward councilor and a cousin of Lauryn’s mother, said in an interview in Botswana that the bus had been following two cars carrying church elders. But when the cars took a turn, the bus failed to follow — suggesting that the bus driver was lost, said Mr. Selome, who had spoken with the elders.

The police were investigating the crash as a case of culpable homicide, according to a statement, though they did not provide further details.

Emergency responders found Lauryn outside the bus with minor lacerations to her arms, legs, head and back, said Thilivhali Muavha, a spokesman for the chief health official in Limpopo Province, where the crash occurred. She was in stable condition on Friday, Mr. Muavha said.

Mr. Muavha said the authorities had not yet determined how the girl was able to survive such a devastating crash.

“All we can say is that we are happy that she was found alive,” he said.

The family has been speculating about how Lauryn survived, said Ms. Siako, 38. They wonder whether Lauryn’s grandmother, Onkemetse Siako, 61, threw her out of the window before the crash.

“No one can explain this miracle,” said Mr. Selome, the cousin.

The family learned at a briefing with police officials from Botswana on Friday, Mr. Selome said, that Lauryn had provided a lot of information to the South African authorities. She told them where the bus was coming from and where it was going, and even gave them her mother’s phone number.

The family now wonders whether God saved the young girl so that she could assist the authorities.

Lauryn was her grandmother’s favorite because she was so obedient, relatives said. The two lived together while Lauryn’s mother was away working, and they were inseparable. She got her cooking skills and independent mind from her grandmother, they said. She would wash and iron her own clothes and cook for the family — she baked bread the morning of the trip.

Lauryn was ranked second in her class, relatives said. She wanted to perform in a beauty pageant at school, but she was not picked because she walked too slowly and with her shoulders slumped, said her mother, who works as a safety and health official at a construction site.

Her mother told her to prepare not to sleep much at the Easter gathering. The praying, singing, dancing and prophesying happens on a field at night, and the energy is so high that the congregants rarely go to bed.

Ms. Siako said there was always a lot of excitement in simply traveling to the Easter gathering, which attracts millions of worshipers, and in seeing all the buses gathered at Moria.

The Zion Christian Church split into two branches in the middle of the 20th century after a dispute between the founder’s sons. Members of the St. Engenas branch wear a badge with a dove, while the other, larger branch, simply called the Zion Christian Church, wear a star. Their beliefs are virtually the same, said Joel Cabrita, a history professor at Stanford University in California, who has written a book about the church. They belong to a broader Zionist Christian movement in Africa that counts around 15 million members, the largest denomination in southern Africa.

While the St. Engenas branch decided to restart its pilgrimage this year, the other branch still has not.

The South African police confirmed on Friday that the passengers on the bus, along with the driver, were citizens of Botswana making the journey from Molepolole, a village that is considered the gateway to the vast Kalahari Desert.

As of Friday afternoon, 34 bodies had been recovered, the police said. Only nine of them were identifiable, with the others burned beyond recognition.

The tragedy cast a cloud over Botswana, a heavily Christian nation of about 2.5 million that was preparing to celebrate the Easter weekend.

Ms. Siako and other relatives said they worried about how this tragedy would affect Lauryn’s mental state. It is unclear when family members might be able to travel to South Africa to visit her in the hospital, or when she will be able to return home.

“I cry a lot,” Ms. Siako said. “I’m just worried, how is she right now?”

She said she pictured her daughter alone at the bottom of the ravine after the crash, and wondered whether she was scared and crying. “I’m asking myself,” she said, “did she even see what really happened?”

Ultimately, though, the miracle of Lauryn’s survival might be all this devastated community has to help it heal right now.

“This girl, just her being alive, is comforting the whole family,” Mr. Selome said. “This girl is giving us strength.”

Related articles

Recent articles