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In July 1964 an International Congress of Surgeons was held at the Wits Medical School in Johannesburg. It was well attended by Surgeons from all over the world including South Africa.
At the time, I was a Registrar (a Surgeon in training and studying for a higher qualification) working in the Professorial Unit of the Johannesburg General Hospital just across the road from the Conference. It was a late Friday afternoon – July 24th 1964.
As workers were making their way home at rush hour, a huge explosion occurred in the main concourse of the Johannesburg Railway Station. A large number of seriously injured people were rushed to the Trauma unit and I was called in to help.
The message quickly reached the Conference which was immediately suspended. Many of the Surgeons attending the Conference hurried across. We had the most unusual and fortunate experience of a plentiful supply of top Surgeons, some with war experience. They assisted us in the Emergency Room, doing Triage and some even pitched in, operating in theatre with us.
The unplanned arrival of large numbers of injured people (28 in this case) can overwhelm hospital staff and would have if not for the extra help. Disaster Plans and the Science of Triage (the selection and treating patients in order of urgency) were as yet not formalised but are vital for mass casualty management. Nevertheless, the team did well.
After helping with immediate resuscitation and stabilising the more seriously injured, I went to assist those working in the theatre. We worked on through the night well into the next day.
Bomb explosions result in multiple injuries to each victim. First the BLAST wave. This has a smashing effect as if one is hit by a Mack truck (fractures, dismemberment, head and internal injuries etc). This is immediately followed by a high-temperature FLASH (burns), then MISSILE injuries from flying fragments and finally IMPACT injuries from the collision of the body with surroundings.
Several sticks of dynamite and cans of petrol had been used in making the bomb. The victims appeared to have been sitting on benches judging by the impacted fragments we removed. There were pieces of wood (painted in typical Railway Green) nuts and bolts, bits of newspaper, pieces of cloth, dirt and debris, etc.
The most severely injured victim was a 77-year-old woman. She had burns over 70% of her body. The burns were 'full-thickness' skin loss, meaning no chance of spontaneous healing, and if she survived, would require extensive and repeated skin grafting. Horrific disfigurement would be inevitable.
The skin is the largest organ in the body. We cannot survive long without it. Massive fluid losses have to be replaced. There is a loss of body temperature control. Most seriously, the main barrier to infection is lost. Burn victims do not die of the burn itself (unless flames and smoke are inhaled) but later from overwhelming infection. Younger victims can survive, but unfortunately, the prognosis for a 77-year-old with this percentage body surface skin loss is grave.
The team continued to work around the clock. Day by day we were able to discharge recovering victims. The old lady remained. Sadly, despite our best efforts, on the 14th night, she passed away. I remember so well standing at her bedside to pay tribute to her courageous fight to live. At that moment we all knew that John Harris's fate was now sealed.
Frederick John Harris, known as the 'Station Bomber' was a 28-year-old school teacher who became an Anti-Apartheid activist and a member of ARM - the African Resistance Movement. Harris was arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death.
Harris was executed in Pretoria Central Prison on 1st April 1965, the only 'White' person ever to hang for anti-apartheid crimes.
Main image: Johannesburg Station circa 1960 (Gordon Clarke)
About the author: Dr Peter Comfort arrived in South Africa from England shorlty after World War II. He matriculated from Marist Brothers College Observatory in 1953 before heading to Wits to study medicine. He spent many years working as a surgeon in the Eastern Cape and built up a thriving surgical practice which is still going today. He is happily married with seven children.