Three South African Navy personnel died and a senior officer was in critical condition after seven crew members of a submarine were swept off its deck by big waves as a helicopter attempted a “vertical transfer” of supplies, the country’sDepartment of Defense said Thursday.
The accident happened Wednesday as an Air Force Lynx helicopter was attempting what’s known as a “vertrep” — or vertical replenishment — of supplies to the SAS Manthatisi submarine on the ocean surface near Kommetjie, off the coast of Cape Town, the department said.
The operation was immediately called off and a rescue effort was launched.
All seven submariners were recovered, but three were pronounced dead. A crew member from the helicopter who was dispatched as a “surface swimmer” to assist in the rescue operation was also recovered and is in the hospital alongside the four surviving submariners.
The department identified the three victims as Lieutenant Commander Gillian Elizabeth Hector, Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa and Warrant Officer Class One Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela. Multiple South African news outlets reported that Hector had been the first woman to ever navigate a military submarine for any African nation.
The National Sea Rescue Institute and other emergency services were called in to help with the rescue, the Department of Defense said, adding that there would be an inquiry into the failed operation and the resulting deaths.
Cape Town and other areas on South Africa’s south coast have been hit by extremely rough seas since last weekend, caused by a phenomenon known as “spring tide.”
South African armed forces analyst Dean Wingrin told the defenceWeb website that the submarine was moving to the Cape Town waterfront for a three-day navy exhibition starting Saturday. The navy has planned the exhibition to mark South Africa’s Heritage Day national holiday on Sunday.
“This is a sad loss for our nation and for our brave armed forces in particular who routinely face danger in order so that all of us can be safe and secure,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosasaid in a statement. “We wish the injured personnel a full recovery from the physical and psychological trauma they experienced during this tragedy.We also appreciate the efforts of all role players who, at great risk to themselves, undertook the rescue and recovery operation.”
In a Facebook post, the South African National Defense Force said members of the public were bringing flowers in memory of the victims to the chapel inside the Navy Museum in Simon’s Town.
The SAS Manthatisi is one of three German-built Type 209/1400 Heroine-class submarines in the South African navy fleet and had returned to the water earlier this year after undergoing maintenance work.