Family wiped out 45 years ago
WHEN Daphne Pillay thinks back to May 22, 1974, it is filled with bitter-sweet memories. It was the day her father brought home their first car, a grey Peugeot.
But it was also the day her entire family was killed, after a train collided with their car.
There has never been complete closure for Pillay. As a survivor of the crash, her family was buried while she lay in a coma.
Pillay, who turned 50 recently, was only five years old at the time and miraculously survived the crash along with her aunt, Meena Padayachee – now in her 50s and a missionary – and cousins Vincent Nair, 51, an insurance broker, and his brother Dickson, who is also in his 50s.
Her father, Wayen Nair, 27, mother Sheila, 25, brother Kevin, 4, and sixmonth-old baby sister, Evelyn, were killed. At the time, the tragedy made headlines in Post Natal.
Since being orphaned, her life, she said, had not been easy.
She was a rebellious teenager and found it difficult to find her place in society. Pillay tied the knot at 22 in the hope of having a better life but her partner later died.
She was widowed at a young age and left to care for her three children, the youngest 11 months old at the time. But despite all the challenges, she has managed to persevere and now lives in Richards Bay where she works as a chef.
Sharing her journey 45 years later, Pillay said her memories of the crash were vague.
“We lived in a two bedroom flat in Buffelsdale (oThongathi). My father was a chef and my mother ran a small home industry business. My dad came home that day with such a broad smile on his face. Our home was filled with excitement and laughter because he had brought home our first car, a grey Peugeot,” recalled Pillay.
In his hands, she said, were packets of food items and gifts for her and her siblings. “Kevin and I got a cowboy and cowgirl set, while Evelyn was gifted a rattle. This is one of the last memories I have of my family being together. Soon after my father arrived home, we got into the car and went to visit my maternal grandparents, who lived a few minutes away from us.”
Pillay said they left their home with her aunt and and picked up her cousins, Dickson and Vincent, to take them for a drive.
“I remember we approached the railway line, before Buffelsdale and Flamingo Heights, and were in the middle of the tracks when suddenly the car switched off. We could not open the doors or windows. Everything seemed jammed.”
Seconds later, a train crashed into them. “The next thing I remember was waking up from a two-month coma in King Edward VIII Hospital, with injuries to my hip and leg, and being told that my entire family was dead.”
Pillay said they had already been buried and she never got to say goodbye.
When she was discharged from hospital, she lived with her maternal grandparents, Paul and Papa Nair, and her aunt, Lilly Joseph.
“My grandfather was an evangelist and he taught me about prayer and that helped me cope with the tragedy. He died a few years later. But as I got older, I kept on feeling like I did not belong or fit in anywhere because I had no parents or siblings. I often questioned why this had happened to me.”
She had become a rebel, she admitted. “My family could not handle my behaviour and when I was 17, a social worker placed me in the School for Industries in Newcastle. It was here that I completed my matric. I agreed to go because I just wanted to be alone.”
After a year, Pillay returned to her grandparents’ home but as things started to settle for her, she was dealt another blow when her grandmother died and she was left with no place to go.
“Given my rebelliousness in the past, my family was not willing to take me in. This is when I met my husband. He was a family friend and asked me to move in at his family’s home in KwaDukuza.”
Having no other option, Pillay agreed. A year later they married and had three children – Jade, now 27, an electrician, Daniel, 21, a boilermaker and part-time photographer and DJ, and Raphael, 15.
“We had a good life but in 2003, my husband died and yet again my life was thrown into turmoil. Raphael was only 11 months old. I moved out of KwaDukuza and to Sandfields (oThongathi). With the financial help of my husband’s family, I managed to rent a small outbuilding for us.”
Pillay said for two and a half years they paid her rent and bought her food – as well as things she needed for her baby.
“When Raphael turned 3, I left him with a caregiver. I got a job as a cleaner at a resort and would do cooking for them as well. Life once again started getting better. With my family, we built a home for ourselves. Jade got married and had a daughter. I was so proud.”
Pillay said she recently took a job as a chef in Richards Bay and relocated with her sons.
“It is still a painful chapter of my life but with prayer I have made peace with all that has happened. I have never visited the crash site but I went to the grave site a few times. It is very emotional for us.”
RIGHT: Daphne Pillaywith her husband Indran, daughter Jade and sons Daniel andRaphael.LEFT: The newspaper clipping that appeared in Post Natal in 1974.FAR LEFT: Daphne Pillay, who recently turned 50, miraculously survived an accident 45 years ago, which wiped out her family, including her parents and siblings.