Underground fire burns man after he falls into a sinkhole

What was meant to be a relaxing Sunday afternoon turned into a nightmare for a 51-year-old man from eMalahleni (formerly Witbank), Mpumalanga, when the ground under his feet suddenly opened up and he had to be rushed to hospital with burn wounds.

Ben Coetzee, an electrician from Jackaroo Park, had been flying his kite in an open field when the incident happened.

Jaco Coetzee, Ben’s brother, told YOU on Wednesday it was a freak incident which nobody could’ve foreseen. He says Ben was in the process of getting his kite in the air when the soil beneath his feet suddenly gave way.

“It’s suspected an underground fire caused the sinkhole,” Jaco says. “When the sinkhole formed, Ben fell into the fire and was burnt from his toes to his navel. The wounds are mostly second-degree burns.”

In most of these cases in South Africa it’s underground peat that starts burning. Peat contains semi-carbonised plant materials that make an excellent fuel. It’s often possible to see the soil glow red where these fires are present.

Ben told emergency personnel it felt as if he’d “been dropped onto hot coals”.

He was taken to a local hospital. At first his wounds didn’t seem serious but it was later established he has burn wounds over 20% of his body.

“I rushed over from Johannesburg on Sunday to be with him,” Jaco tells YOU.

“He’s in excruciating pain. We’re struggling to get him transferred to a private hospital – he doesn’t have medical aid. We’ll probably only know for sure later this week but at this point it looks as if he might lose his toes.”

Gavin Cooper from Legacy Emergency Specialists was the first to arrive on the scene.

He says he couldn’t drive the ambulance to where Ben was because the ground was too unstable.

“We immediately inserted an intravenous drip to rehydrate Ben because burn wounds cause major moisture loss,” he says. “His shorts were scorched and he had second-degree wounds on both legs. The intense heat had burnt his skin.”

Maureen Scheepers, spokesperson for SA Community Crime Watch in eMalahleni, says they’re trying to establish who owns the tract of land where the underground fire is raging.

eMalahleni disaster management, several law enforcement agencies and the Hero Burn Foundation are involved in the process.

“We’re concerned because this area is only about 300m from homes,” she says.

“When we visited the area on Tuesday we stuck a piece of wood in the ground which immediately caught fire. It’s an incredibly great safety risk and we’re struggling to establish who the land belongs to because it’s historical.”

The investigation into the incident continues.