The humongous explosion of ammonium nitrate in Beirut on 4 August 2020 resonates with Potchefstroom, which had its own ammonia explosion in 1973. I wrote an article on it for the centenary supplement of the Potchefstroom Herald in 2008.
It is regarded as the biggest recorded disaster that Potchefstroom ever suffered in terms of the loss of human lives. This was the explosion of an ammonia tank at the Triomf Fertilizer plant on 13 July 1973.
Eighteen people died in this explosion and, and for many more it “resulted in years of ill-health and damage to property”.
More than twenty five years later, in 1999 a city councillor and residents of Ikageng, called for the re-opening of the investigation into this event. On 9 April 1999 the Potchefstroom Herald’s Karen Engelbrecht reported:
Many victims in the neighbourhood adjacent to the fertilizer plant still remember the fatal day when one of four 50-ton pressure-storage tanks failed, sending an estimated 30 tonnes of anhydrous ammonia into the air. A railway tanker emitted another eight tonnes.
Research into the incident shows the accident occurred at 16:15 on July 13, when the storage tank failed while being filled from a railway tanker.
One employee, 45 metres away from the tank, was killed outright by the blast, eight were killed by gas while attempting to escape from points within a hundred metres from the tank, and three others died within a few days as a result of gas inhalation.
Outside the plant fence, four people died immediately in the adjacent neighbourhood and two others died several days later. In addition to the eighteen deaths, approximately 65 people required medical treatment in hospital and an unknown number were treated by private doctors.
Inquests and investigations were conducted shortly after the accident and one year after the explosion the verdict of the formal inquest into the deaths was that “no one, by action or negligence, was responsible for the fatalities.”
A report that was in the Herald’s possession in 1999 contained many technical details of the construction of the tank which exploded. “Stress and heat tests carried out on remnants of the tank showed that the tank was generally in a good condition, but that the “steel fractured in a brittle manner.”
The company, Triomf, formerly under Louis Luyt, according to a report on the accident, received large amounts insurance settlements, “but it is unclear whether these were for physical damages to property or policy insurance for affected employees”.
The editor of the Herald chose this subject for the “Standpunt” of 9 April 1999 and said that this request for the re-opening of the inquest is not only about a call to take responsibility for the events of 25 years ago, but also to do something about the circumstances of people living in the vicinity of the plant, which had not change since then.
One of the victims of the explosion expressed the view in the Herald of 23 April 1999 that nothing came of the promises to him for compensation.
He was only three metres from the tank when the hole opened and he had to run for 500 metre shoulder deep through the ammonia. To that day he still suffered from a lung disease, although his life was spared.
Because of the injuries he was demoted to ‘soft job’ at the plant and people were promoted over his head. In 1985 the situation became unbearable and he decided to resign. At the time of the report he had to work to keep body and soul together.
Triomf to Kynoch