Train survivor speaks out

Southfield resident Leigh Jansen survived a train fire last year..

It will take a lot more than pretty new coaches and engines and promises by the president to get Leigh Jansen back on a train.

The suspected torching of more trains at Cape Town station at the weekend, causing more than
R30 million damage, has also done little to reassure the Southfield woman who survived a train fire in May last year that left her with third-degree burns on her upper body, neck and face.

She was in hospital for over a month and could not work for the rest of 2018.

The latest train fire comes just weeks after President Cyril Ramaphosa visited Cape Town station and tested out new trains, which the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) is hoping will help to ease the years of misery rail commuters have endured.

While she commended Mr Ramaphosa for his visit, Ms Jansen said Metrorail – Prasa’s commuter rail branch – needed to do a lot more to keep passengers safe.

“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. Things are getting out of hand,” she said.

She had been taking the train for 20 years when she fell victim to the suspected arson attack that turned her trip to work into a vision of hell.

“I’ve taken the train for the majority of my life… Now I just hate trains,” she said.

The morning of May 31 was like any other for her. She dropped her son off at school and then caught the train from Southfield station to her work at Engen in the city centre.

Like every other morning, friends on a WhatsApp group warned her trains on the southern line were delayed so she decided to take the train on the central line to get to work on time.

When that train arrived – it was also delayed – Ms Jansen and another woman boarded the first carriage, as a lone man climbed off.

She and the woman were the only ones in the carriage. Something in her gut told her to get off, but she stayed, and they even joked about how empty the coach was.

But they were barely two minutes out of Southfield station when Ms Jansen saw the smoke, coming from the back of the carriage.

Within moments, the coach was thick with it. The heat became unbearable. Ms Jansen couldn’t see through the smoke, which made her dizzy as she inhaled it. Screaming with panic, the two women banged on the train doors but they wouldn’t open.

Ms Jansen’s body was burning but she didn’t realise it.

The other woman stopped screaming.

“I started praying,” said Ms Jansen. “I kept on saying, ‘I don’t want to die like this, God.’ I was so scared and then, luckily, I realised that I was standing right in front of a window, and I jumped out.”

She was found on the tracks between the Southfield and Ottery stations and was rushed to Tygerberg Hospital’s burn unit.

The woman she had joked with about the empty train coach was burnt beyond recognition.

Ms Jansen had third-degree burns and was in ICU for a week. She needed two skin grafts and surgery to repair her windpipe, which was damaged from the toxic smoke and from being on a ventilator for so long. The fall from the train onto the tracks had broken her teeth, and she needed dentures.

“My son was 12 years old when it happened. He came to visit me in hospital and he said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like seeing you like this.’ I said, ‘I don’t like seeing myself like this too, but what can we do?’”

Ms Jansen said Metrorail had only stepped forward to offer help and pay for her medical bills after her mother, trauma counsellor and activist, Ursula Schenker, had drawn media attention to the case.

Ms Jansen said Engen had been very supportive, and she had been the guest speaker at the company’s Women’s Day event last year, but she had had to make big changes to her routine because she no longer took the train.

She now drives to work, paying for parking and waking up extra early to avoid being stuck in traffic.

“The train was only R280 a month, where else could you find a mode of transport so affordable?” she said.

“I’ve seen the president on the trains in the papers, but what’s more important to me is how they are going to ensure the safety of their passengers? There needs to be compassion for people from Metrorail. I don’t want anyone to ever go through what I went through. I’m ready to take them on legally now. I’m ready.”

Ms Jansen suspects the man who got off the carriage before her on that fateful morning was the one who started the fire, but she said she had not had any feedback on the police case she opened last year.

A 30-year-old man from Khayelitsha has been arrested in connection with Sunday’s fire at Cape Town station.