RESURRECTING HER DREAMS
Girl buried alive in church tragedy bounces back
● When 14-year-old S’bani Phiri stands atop a mound of rubble and broken glass — the remains of an 8m section of church wall that buried her when it collapsed — it is easy to understand why she believes her faith helped her cheat death.
On Wednesday, Phiri and her grandmother, Thembelihle Ndabandaba, 59, accompanied the Sunday Times to the grounds of the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Ndlangubo, northern KwaZulu-Natal, where on the eve of Good Friday two years ago she lay trapped beneath a heap of rubble and “spoke to God”.
A freak storm had swept through the grounds of the church, ripped off part of the roof and toppled a retaining wall at the front of a building where female congregants were sleeping after attending a Passover service.
There was a mass stampede and a window frame flew towards her, hitting her on the head as she tried to escape. As she fell, the bricks came tumbling down and Phiri vividly remembers praying and speaking to God amid the wails of women and children. Sixteen people, including a child, were killed.
“I told God I didn’t want to die and asked him to please save everyone,” said Phiri, who was dug out by church members.
After a month in hospital with a broken pelvis and limb fractures, she endured a three-month rehabilitation journey that ended when she defied her doctors’ gloomy prognosis of life in a wheelchair.
“The doctors declared that I wouldn’t be able to walk ever again. They gave me a wheelchair and crutches. My pelvis was crushed, and still today I have holes on either side of my pelvis. When I started walking again they changed my prognosis. I proved them wrong,” she said.
No longer able to compete in athletics, Phiri lost her sports scholarship at a private college in Empangeni and had to switch schools due to financial constraints.
“It’s been hard adjusting to a public school after being in private schools my whole life. Some kids laugh and tease me because of the scars on my legs but I don’t even entertain them — they have no idea what I have been through in my life.”
She said she is coping academically and hopes to be a paediatrician.
Phiri’s father died when she was four, and this was followed by the death of her mother from kidney failure four years later. Her best friend, Ntando Mlondo, was crushed to death by the falling wall.
“I am actually not all that positive,” she said. “I struggle with anger management. Even with the loss of my parents sometimes I question, ‘Why me? Why does all of this stuff happen to me?’
“But I don’t like people sympathising with me, that’s why I have learnt to be this strong
person. My gran is very positive and always motivates me to be and do better.”
Ndabandaba said she had left Phiri with friends and almost reached home after the Passover service when she heard about the wall collapse.
“When I arrived I thought she was dead, I thought God was after my soul. I got to her and she was still responding and she said, ‘Gogo I am here’,” said Ndabandaba.
“The paramedic wanted to wrap her in one of those foils to keep her warm but she said no because she didn’t want me to think she was dead. This gave me hope.”