The Braamfontein explosion
The worst train disaster in the history of South Africa 
by Herman Labuschagne

Great explosion brought to mind an event that had once taken place in South Africa. An incredible tragedy that shook Johannesburg so hard that it rocked the whole world. It happened during the gold rush days when an amazing century was drawing to a close. In a suburb called Braamfontein a train with eight trucks containing 2,300 crates of dynamite had been left standing in the sun for several days. On the 19th of February 1896 the train was shunted – and when the couplings connected a little too hard the entire load of nearly 60 tons of dynamite blew up spectacularly. It was to be the greatest accidental explosion in the history of South Africa.


The explosion was so loud that it was even heard in Klerksdorp – 150 miles distant. From far away a gigantic yellow mushroom rose above Braamfontein, slowly raining earth and stones, and millions of pieces of flying wood and metal. When it had settled, all that was left of an entire train was a gaping hole of 250 feet long, 60 feet wide and 40 feet deep. Large enough to swallow a big ship.


Around was only the scattered remains of ruined houses, and the horribly mutilated arms and legs of dead people and animals. Further away from the impact zone people were dead without a scratch on them. In one place, a group of golden-haired children lay in a circle on the ground unmarked – killed by the by the shockwave alone where they had been playing a ring game.


The explosion could be  seen from miles away and the sound carried far beyond the horizon.


In all almost 80 people were killed, 700 were wounded, and 1,500 were left homeless. Across Braamfontein, Brickfields and Vrededorp entire streets of shop and house windows were shattered. When the unidentified human remains were collected they filled four large boxes.


As always, the drama of such an event lay in the small incidents that people recounted afterwards. There was a Mrs. Van der Merwe whose whole house and all her children had been blown away around her. But there was one survivor. When they found her body all her limbs had been blown off, except one arm only. And in that one remaining arm lay her only surviving baby son. Still sucking on the breast of his dead mother, he loudly wailed as they gently picked him up to carry him away.


There was also a labourer at the Showgrounds, one mile from the impact zone, where an entire axle with wheels from a train fell ten yards behind him. And Jack Hammond, the little son of the famous American mining engineer was digging in the ground while looking for gold when the train blew up. He ran inside shouting: “Mommy, mummy! I’ve dug up hell!”


The curious thing about the Braamfontein explosion was that it did jolt people to their senses because at this very time the world was poised for war. But Braamfontein made them regain their senses – at least for three years until the long-awaited Anglo-Boer War finally broke out.


From around the earth came an outpouring of sympathy and kindness. Millionaires and poor people alike stepped forth to offer aid, so that soon a sum of nearly 105,000 pounds was donated to help the victims. President Paul Kruger walked slowly through the scene of mayhem, his head bare – struck speechless by the unimaginable scale of the tragedy around him. They were the poor of Johannesburg. Those who could afford tragedy the least.


At a great gathering at the Wanderers stadium the old man wept when he addressed the shaken survivors. He recognized it as an event that bridged the gulf between enemies, and he thanked the world for having united for a little while. Then he summed it all up by quoting the Saviour of the world when he said that, “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”


Nothing but rubble surrounded the scene of the Braamfontein explosion afterwards.