I was hesitant to meet with Tinus and Elize Strydom. I knew their story would be difficult to hear and even more challenging to write about. On the one hand I wanted to cover their story but on the other, I was petrified at the thought of hearing it.Vuyi Mpofu, Editor – heels and horsepower magazine
Settling into the seats across the table from me, Tinus leans towards Elize and plants a light kiss on her forehead. She sighs happily, throws a shy glance at me, and visibly relaxes her shoulders. I don’t quite know where to begin and my hesitation is visible because Elize reaches for my hand and gives it a reassuring squeeze.
“Thank you for seeing us,” Tinus begins.
“This isn’t easy but we have to tell other parents how we lost our son. It would be horrible to hear that this happened to someone else.”
I nod in empathetic agreement and he continues.
It had begun to drizzle lightly. Nothing hectic, just a soft patter…
Here’s our story…
“We were on our way back to Johannesburg after spending time with family in Empangeni. Before departing on our 6 hour drive Elize and I had agreed to share driving responsibilities and stick to the 120km/hr speed limit. After refuelling both the vehicle and our tummies in Newcastle, Elize had opted to climb into the rear seat to tend to our 5 month old daughter Opal. Our eldest, 6 year old Ruan couldn’t believe he would be allowed to sit in the front passenger seat because we always place him in his booster seat behind the driver.”
Soon Ruan and Tinus were in deep conversation about the size of the rugby ball his Oupa had given him and how Ruan and his cousins had hidden Ouma’s teeth in the fridge after finding them in a tumbler on her bedside table.
The car was now facing the vehicle I had overtaken just minutes earlier but was still travelling in the direction we had been facing
We all chuckle woefully. Clearing his throat Tinus continues. “It had begun to drizzle lightly. Nothing hectic, just a soft patter, the kind that makes you lie on the couch when you are home.”
The gentle, light and steady rain, didn’t seem a threat but little did Tinus know that his life was about to turn upside down.
“I must say, I felt content,” Tinus smiles softly. “My family was with me, I was playing my favourite music, the car had been serviced and the rain wasn’t heavy so I continued driving without giving the task much thought.”
“I remember glancing in the rear-view mirror and seeing Elize sleeping peacefully with Opal in her arms. Ruan also asleep, had managed to slip the shoulder belt of the car seat behind his upper body and I remember making a mental note to retrieve his booster seat from the rear when next we stopped. The next thing I recall the car was skidding towards the edge of the road towards the grassy embarkment. I stomped on the brakes and tried to straighten the vehicle but it spun a further 180 degrees. I felt like I was in a movie. The car was now facing the vehicle I had overtaken just minutes earlier but was still travelling in the direction we had been facing. The last thing I remember hearing was Elize screaming, a loud bang and the crunch of metal before everything went dark.”
She had been flung out of her Elize’s arms and had become a fast moving projectile within the car…
When he regained his consciousness, (less than 5 minutes later) Tinus was horrified by the sight that greeted him. “I could only see Ruan’s right arm from beneath the massive airbag; Elize was slumped over and I couldn’t see or hear little Opal.” Panicking Tinus stumbled out of the car and passed out in the arms of the motorist who had been driving behind them.
The couple would later learn that Tinus had driven through a pool of water, the car had aqua-planned and he had lost control of it. Fortunately, their injuries were not serious however, the children weren’t so lucky.
Ruan, who had only been secured by the lap belt when his father’s car had crashed into a nearby tree, had been thrown forward with an incredible amount of force. The lap belt, without the corresponding effect of the shoulder belt had become like a sharp knife, cutting into the 6 year old’s underdeveloped abdominal fat and muscles, and causing a part of his intestine to rupture and spill out of his severed belly.
If only I had put her back in her car seat after burping her…
Opal on the other hand was the most affected by the accident because she had been in her mother’s arms and not in an appropriate restraint. She had been flung out of her Elize’s arms and had become a fast moving projectile within the car, bouncing against the back of her brother’s seat, and crashing into the right hand passenger window, before hurtling across the width of the car to the far left hand corner of the rear window before being stopped by the headrest of her mother’s seat.
Tinus’ gruff voice, thick with emotion came to me from a distance, as if I was underwater. I fought back tears and vaguely heard Elize say that Opal had passed away almost instantly due to her vast injuries. Her tiny body had become a ping pong ball within the cabin of the car and her head had struck various objects within the car before she landed on the rear shelf behind the back head rests. Both her arms and left leg had snapped during her uncontrollable rebounding within the car as had her delicate neck.
Ruan was hospitalised for several months during which time he was operated on repeatedly. Although doctors saved his life, his life in turn has changed drastically. He has had to relearn how to walk, and can only eat food that has been mashed smoothly.
I don’t believe we are the first parents to lose our child like this.
A WORD TO ALL PARENTS
“We carry our children on our laps all the time,” Elize’s pained voice pierces my thoughts. “It’s just natural to do so especially when they need to be comforted. If only I had put her back in her car seat after burping her,” her voice trails away.
After comforting his wife, Tinus adds “We just want other parents to be aware that this sort of thing can happen. We talk about head-on collisions and hijackings and all the rest but these types of accidents don’t get mentioned and I don’t believe we are the first parents to lose our child like this.”
I watch as Tinus and Elize slowly walk away arm in arm, but notice that they are in fact, leaning on one another. To anyone else it looks like a romantic walk but I know that they are in fact drawing enough physical strength from each other to remain upright. I marvel at the courage it’s had taken them to recall that horrific incident and share it with a complete stranger.
Even though it’s part of their healing process I too sincerely hope that no other parent experiences what they are going through.