“Anthony, just keep on praying”. These were the final words Crags local Louise van der Byl, 50, uttered before she died in the recent Nigerian church disaster that claimed the lives of 115 people, including 84 South Africans.
The words above were directed at her husband Anthony, 47, while they were trapped under tons of building rubble with dozens of other churchgoers after the guesthouse attached to the Lagos church, headed by preacher TB Joshua, collapsed on September 12.
The couple visited the church to participate in a series of seminars, seeking spiritual upliftment after their eldest son disappeared from his workplace in 2011. He has not been seen or heard from since - a traumatic experience which had taken its toll on them emotionally.
Anthony had just stepped into the dining hall of the guesthouse where he joined his wife after a quick trip to the bank, when he heard a loud noise.
“The wall in front of us just cracked and started to fold in towards us. The next moment the building collapsed on top of us. It was pitch black and there was dust everywhere,” Anthony said.
He added that during the chaos he was separated from his wife.
“Everything happened so quickly that no one even had time to react, scream or cry. Only when the dust settled people started to panic.”
It was also at this moment when Anthony and several other survivors started praying. “Shortly after this, I heard my wife - in a laboured voice - say ‘Anthony, just keep on praying.’ She was only a few feet away from me.”
“I never heard her speak again and I did as she told me, we kept on praying for the remainder of the 25 hours we were trapped there.”
Anthony said that they could feel breathing becoming more difficult as they were using all the available oxygen. “We then started to pray for oxygen and that is when the first miracle took place. Suddenly a cold breeze blew through the area where we were trapped.”
At one stage they became very thirsty. “We started praying for water and shortly thereafter we felt water dripping on us from the slabs of concrete above us.”
During their time under the rubble, Anthony could not move. “I was pinned in a very uncomfortable position, resting on one elbow, an iron bar behind my back and a concrete slab just inches above me. At one stage I wedged my wallet under my elbow as it started to hurt.”
The concrete above him and some of the other survivors was being held up only by a plastic table, where they were supposed to have had lunch just moments before.
“One of the injured women among us was in a lot of pain and every time she moved, she hit the table. We were afraid that if it shifted the concrete would fall on top of us.”
During the 25 excruciating hours Anthony was trapped, he could hear rescue workers drilling from the outside in an attempt to reach them.
“I then started to see an opening appear as they managed to break through the rubble. I was one of the first people out as the opening was near me.”
Anthony was admitted to a local hospital and treated for dehydration and other minor injuries. “Other than a few scratches and stomach pain, I was unharmed.”
He was discharged the Sunday after the incident and then the search for his wife began.
“We first went to all the hospitals and she wasn’t there. We then went to the mortuaries. There were three. We literally had to go from body to body to see if our loved ones were there. It was extremely traumatic as all the bodies were deformed and missing limbs.”
After the first mortuary, this form of identification was stopped and a forensic team took over.
So far more than 60 of the 84 South Africans killed have been identified.
Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, tasked with managing the situation in Lagos, said the process involved identification by next of kin, through photographs, fingerprints, dental records and, lastly, through DNA.
“On Saturday forensic experts came to Plettenberg Bay to take a sample of our son’s DNA to use in identifying my wife’s body.”
Once her body is identified, she will be brought back to South Africa for burial.
Anthony said although a part of him longed to be with her “in heaven”, he knew that he survived for a greater purpose.
“My faith has never been this strong. God has given me the strength to deal with the death of my wife and now I can testify about his greatness.”
Anthony said he was however convinced the collapse was no accident and that it was a terror attack.
“There was a huge aircraft that flew over the building several times before the incident and after the collapse was not seen again. I’m in the construction industry and if a something gives way, then the building would not collapse in the way it did. On some video footage you can see an explosion before the collapse.”
• Louise leaves behind five children between the ages of 12 and 25 as well as two grandchildren.