Rate of ‘catastrophic’ mining waste failures rising across the planet

Police reservist Brian Emmenis was watching Dallas with his wife on the evening of 22 February 1994 when the phone rang. It was his colleague, Captain Ben van Wyk, who told Emmenis to grab his emergency kit because a dam had broken. 

Both men believed that heavy rains had broken the Allemanskraal Dam, which is upriver from Virginia in the Free State. But it was Harmony Gold’s tailings dam that had failed, flooding neighbouring residential areas in Merriespruit. 

Emmenis, who is now the station manager for Gold FM, was among the first police officers on the scene. “At that moment, it was a nightmare from hell because the mud was gushing out,” he recalled. “Houses were crumbling. It was like a scene from a very, very bad movie.”

As part of the airborne rescue team, he remembers the faces of “anguish” of residents stranded on the top of their roofs. “On many occasions as we lifted the person, the whole house washed away … we saved 22 lives on those roofs.”

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