Crime Scene Investigation: Polokwane Explosion

As any transporter will tell you, this industry is more suited to an expert juggling clown than to any normal, sane-thinking individual. The array of risks, challenges, requirements, vulnerabilities, and challenges is eclipsed only by the need to remain competitive, limiting costs, perfecting route selection and selecting the right tools for the job in complexity.

While the average person will typically see an image of a container truck when the word ‘transport’ is used, there are as many load configurations as there are manufacturers and models of trucks, if not more.

After the well-published collision and explosion occurred on the N1 outside Polokwane, killing a truck driver and several police officers, I was overwhelmed by questions about the possible risks’ transporters may face as well as the mitigation efforts that could have prevented this disaster.

The transport market in Africa is unlike any other in the world. You have an exploding economy, demanding leaps on the supply chain, resting on one of the poorest infrastructures as far as road quality goes. In a highly competitive business environment such as Africa, superimposed on an inherently or at least potentially corrupt platform, multiple borders to cross, vastly varied enforcement cultures and enormous physical (crash) risk and intolerable crime trends, you need to be an expert in all aspects of the transport process only to survive – never mind excel.

With this in mind, there are often incompatibilities between the ‘ideal world’, the ‘legal framework’ and the ‘real world.’ While you try to optimize your profits by transporting a specific load at minimum cost, the ‘law’ may require you to do one thing while the road quality, border delays, ‘unspoken transport culture’ and deadline pressures force you to do something completely different.

In an effort to provide transporters with an insight into some of the risks faced and the risk mitigation factors that may be considered, we will use the Polokwane collision and explosion as a backdrop for suggesting some steps you could take to prevent a similar incident, or worse.

It all starts with attitude and culture. After 13 years in the special forensic crash investigation industry. I have examined thousands of vehicles and I have conducted forensic technical audits on many hundreds. One thing I learnt very early on is that the prevailing maintenance culture is often a direct indicator of the risk mitigation culture.

People with well-maintained fleets have many processes and protocols in place to reduce risk. They make use of some of the most advanced technologies available, such as live fleet monitoring, 24-hour control rooms, risk reaction protocols, in-vehicle data and video recorders, advanced training programs, pre-deployment fatigue and motor-reaction testing for drivers and special investigators like me.

This group would typically react emotionally and immediately to incidents and collisions. Top management immediately gets involved. Answers are often demanded even before investigators are deployed. They take huge responsibility for their actions, prefer to use independent investigators, demand to know all the facts, pay enormous amounts to know what happened, what can be done to prevent a repeat, which systems need to change, who needs to be fired and who needs to answer for the cause. But they also protect their staff, pay higher salaries, have regular safety workshops and test and try every possible new ‘gadget’ that can reduce risk. They have risk executives appointed for these tasks and they are highly qualified.

Then you have the outfits that will delay repairs in favor of shipment, those who will improvise repairs, disable systems they deem expensive to maintain, using sub-standard tires (often retreads), resisting salesmen trying to sell them the next fancy gadget under the banner of improved safety and efficiency. They are often ‘old-school.’ They cannot see the benefit of ‘making their trucks look pretty,’ or having multiple drivers on one vehicle. They will ‘drive’ their employees like cattle, often ‘forcing’ them to work extended hours; they give “work or we’ll employ someone else” ultimatums and they typically would not install in-vehicle recorders they don’t ‘like’ tracking systems and they most certainly would prefer not to have their crashes investigated to any professional level.

Their collisions and incidents are typically managed by the workshop, their risks are managed by the accountant and their disputes are referred to a law firm operating on ‘questionable’ practices. ‘They oppose any investigations; they will generate or destroy documents that can or may incriminate them or keep no files at all. They are truly only in it for the money. They have a very high staff turnover, they use sub-standard equipment, disobey or dodge the law most of the time and they are generally not interested in advice or suggestions. They also typically have a culture of “it hasn’t happened to me yet, so I am good operator” toward risk and specifically toward collisions and incidents.

The final group is the ‘marketing moguls.’ The outside of their trucks looks amazing. They are truly moving billboards. They have neat uniforms, their tires are always polished black, their chrome is shiny, they have hundreds of lights and air horns and they really look the part. But this is all show. Under the vehicle, inside the cab and back in the workshop, you may find poor maintenance, manipulated vehicle brake systems, disconnect hoses and a variety of other ‘cultural indicators.’ When interviewed about their fleet, they’ll talk safety and principles (and even quote a religious verse or two), but all the while they are nothing short of masters of deception.

Their collisions and incidents are typically downplayed. They’ll move to rapidly paint their names with black paint when their vehicles are involved in crashes, they will even (if forced to) go on television and explain how hard-working they are and how much they are doing for the community and perhaps even shed a tear in feeling for the unfortunate victims. All this while they dodge weighbridges, redirect their vehicles away from known roadblock areas, make their staff work excessive hours, not pay service providers and – this is a good indicator – occasionally change their color scheme, name or brand to reappear with a whole new brand and image.

Back to the Polokwane explosion incident. There is a reason I had to explain how these three ‘classes’ differ. This culture features heavily in the moments and events leading up to an incident of the kind already discussed.

What we (now) know about this explosion incident is the following:

  • The truck was transporting about 10 tons of blasting caps for the mining industry which was destined for Zambia.
  • The collision occurred at night when the truck collided with the rear of a grocery truck.
  • At least an hour later, the truck was on fire and exploded. Some video was captured of the explosion.
  • The driver of the grocery truck and four police officers died in the explosion while some other motorists were injured.
  • The explosion ripped a 25-meter diameter crater into the tar road and both trucks were reduced to rubble.
  • Some metal parts were found as much as 250m from the primary blast are. This had been a huge explosion.

There are questions that will remain unanswered until criminal and special investigations are completed. These could include:

  • Why was there no escort for a vehicle carrying this quantity of explosives?
  • Why did the driver run away, if he was not at fault?
  • Why was the truck traveling at night?
  • Why did the collision occur?
  • Why was there no fire department presence – even after some time?
  • Why were officers and the grocery truck driver close to the burning truck, full of explosive materials, when it exploded?
  • Were explosive warnings fitted and clearly visible?
  • Was the amount of explosives transported legal? Was the operator allowed to transport that much?
  • Are the legal parameters and limitations adequate and enforceable, considering what happened?

While we ponder this case and all the implications, and while speculation in the absence of access to evidence and/or final results of the criminal and other investigations are as yet unavailable, the more pressing questions is: What steps could the operator have taken to prevent this (or any other) incident?

This is, in my opinion, where the culture of trucking is in need of a very serious overhaul. These are my recommendations, listed in order of the various factors that may be at play in incidents of this kind:

Human Factors

Firstly, the question is why the driver chose to drive (with a volatile load) at the time of night – after midnight. Had he stopped to rest or did he fail to stop to rest and press on, only to be fatigued later? Was the driver medically fit? Many diseases such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and even indigestion can influence and affect human performance. Add poor eating habits (or an inability to afford proper food) to some of these diseases and the situation becomes nothing short of a disaster looking to happen.

Operators should ensure their medical evaluation programs are based on sound practice and not send their drivers to ‘compliance mills’ only to ensure they can get a PrDP (professional driving permit) and continue driving.  Then we have an education. Whether the driver is qualified to transport explosives or not, the true question should not be whether or not he passed some test, but rather whether he has an understanding of the true implication of his task. He needs to know what product he is transporting, what it is designed to do, how volatile it is and what to do in case of any risk profile change. The driver needs to know the difference between blasting caps and blasting cord, and the implications of transporting them

Finally, we have the physical performance limitations of the driver. Age, visual acuity and natural sleep cycles are factors that can impact negatively on performance late into the night. Even fatigue tests are typically done prior to a shift not during the shift.  This can then only yield results relating to the status of the driver prior to deployment and not later, during deployment, when rest periods and sleep requirements or dietary requirements have been ignored.

Often, during post-event video graphic truth verification interviews (designed to detect dishonesty), I detect a host of factors that contributed to the driver’s ultimate performance failure. This technique enables us to separate fact from fiction, improvisation from memory and events from interpretations and conclusions. It is when these interviews are done that, we often detect just how substantially the human factor contributed to a collision.

Mechanical factors

When I refer to mechanical factors, most people think in terms of component failure. They think about things that break. They think of tires blowing out, wheel nuts coming loose or lights failing.  But mechanical factors are more complex than this.

It would be in the best interest of an operator to submit to a forensic technical fleet audit. While the Road Traffic Act and its rules and Annual Certificate of Compliance checks will go some distance toward establishing that the truck is allowed to operate on the road, ‘the possible contributors to collisions go far beyond this. I have audited many vehicles that were brand new, having passed homologation just days before my audit, yet they were not manufactured in compliance with the Road Traffic Act or there were elements that were so dangerous that the act should be ignored and steps taken to improve safety.

A forensic technical audit is not a mere ‘mechanical inspection’, but rather a photographic or video graphic recording of the condition of the vehicle, focusing on specific elements that can increase risk, contribute or lead to collisions or increase post-collision liability. I don’t merely check if the truck is running fine – that’s where the Certificate of Fitness check comes in. I am interested in anything that can increase risk for the operator.

By outsourcing their forensic technical fleet audits to me, our clients are assured they have the benefit of an external, unbiased technical report that outlines not only the non-compliances in terms of the Road Traffic Act but also the elements that could increase the propensity for injury or liability as well as localized and global technical trends. If they are now faced with a claim and some aspect of mechanical contribution becomes apparent, they can prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they did indeed take all reasonable steps to reduce or eliminate risks. They hired an external expert to tell them what to attend to, rather than manage their risks internally.

Road engineering factors

Roads are designed to carry traffic. The design of the road is the function of traffic volume analysis. Roads are designed to carry specific types of traffic, at specific volumes, of specific sizes and weights, over specific distances. But the research is only good if the predicted growth matches expectations.

Africa is not a growing economy, but rather an exploding one (pardon the pun). The rate at which development is taking place is putting enormous strain on specifically the routes for long-distance movement of heavy cargo. As loads and traffic volumes increase, road infrastructure starts to fail.  This has enormous implications for traffic safety and thereby the risks associated with using those roads. Broken-down vehicles cause obstruction, speeding (impatient) drivers increase risk, and a lack of resources (or funding) results in the deterioration of road furniture (barriers, streetlights, control signs, etc.). This is an ever-increasing risk factor that would require very decisive intervention if the downward spiral is ever to be addressed effectively.

One would expect there is little that can be done to ‘change the world,’ but let’s look at one more factor before we suggest a solution.

Environmental factors

When you say, ‘environmental factor’, most people think about the weather. They immediately think of rain, wind, snow, darkness, etc. But in the transport risk mitigation industry, we are also concerned about the traffic environment, which includes traffic volume, traffic type, traffic friction, traffic culture, and even statistical risk. Before an operator uses any road, he would be well served to understand not only how much it will cost to use the route (in fuel and tolls), but also what the likelihood is of delays, breakdowns, collisions and even crime trends impacting on his operation.

Some roads are designed to be better (wider and straighter with more lanes), but result in poor-risk performance since they lack areas where drivers can rest, they are over-engineered (promoting speeding) and they are poorly it (by the wrong type of lighting or none at all), among others.

If a collision occurs at night in a remote area, the question should not only be whether the driver fell asleep, but also if the road was not designed to be so ‘safe’ that it increased risk due to a lack of stimulation. Sensory deprivation is a huge factor in road design. If the driving environment (aesthetics) remains constant for too long, the driver can experience ‘highway hypnosis’ and slumber, although he is not essentially fatigued.

Whether you transport general goods, abnormal goods or volatile loads such as explosives, you would be well served to gather intelligence on the operating environment you intend to enter. Not unlike a military operation, you intend to complete a task (transport goods) through a volatile environment (on African roads) where you need to detect risk (collisions, breakdowns or hijackings) in advance, take steps to mitigate that risk (for example, the steps contained in this article) and react to the risks as they occur. But you also need to respond to those risks by learning from them.

In a military context, you are well served to gather what is called forward intelligence. You need to understand what you are walking into.

In the past, military units used to deploy scouts or reconnaissance units that are specially trained to move undetected, their job being to assess risk and return with intelligence that can be used to mitigate risk (of ambush or attack). These days, they use unmanned aerial vehicles and micro ‘drones’ to deploy into the field to achieve situational awareness.

Why the transport sector, with all the risks it faces (on African roads), has not yet seen the value of qualified, expert route risk assessments is beyond my understanding. Why would an organization not be interested in knowing what the possible risk areas are, where the propensity for collision, breakdowns or hijackings are higher, during what hours or in what areas driver fatigue should be addressed and mitigated?

If a driver is presented with a 10-page document, outlined on nothing more than a map and several pages of text-based explanation, the value is short-lived since the driver can only read it while stationary and then spends several hours driving that route – quickly forgetting what was explained in the text.

By producing a route risk assessment video, the driver can see and experience the implied risk in daylight conditions and at night (as the case may be) and can get firsthand visual experience by watching the video. This makes recognition much more natural since the driver perceives the road and his environment in the form of moving pictures – not still photographs and paragraphs.

Proper crash analysis

Our most risk-aware customers engage in long-erm retainer-based contracts with us to ensure every serious collision (deployment thresholds vary) is properly investigated and analyzed every time. This places our clients in a position to detect their liabilities earlier, to respond to these risks more rapidly, to introduce group-wide risk mitigation policies almost immediately and to prevent unnecessary recurrences of the same kinds of collisions and incidents.

So, what could the operator of that ill-fated truck have done to prevent the collision and the explosion? Here are my recommendations:

By ensuring his driver is medically fit, properly assessed and well-rested (not overworked or pressured), they would have been sure that the driver was capable of handling and managing his workload and work hours.

By ensuring the driver is properly trained, they would have ensured the driver was capable of detecting the risk level prior to the explosion. He could have ordered the evacuation of the area in response to the product-specific risk mitigation protocols. He would have alerted the first arriving police or other emergency services of the risk and this would have expedited evacuation and road closure in response to the real risk.

By using modem tracking and incident and incident detection technologies, the operator would have detected the crash immediately and would have been in a position to guide the driver, give him support and ensure the right steps are taken to evacuate and protect the scene much more rapidly. They would also have been able to detect movement during times when it was not allowed or the driver’s failure to rest (if he did not) and speeding (if this was the case).

By requesting route risk assessments and presenting video briefings to the driver, there would have been a much lower likelihood of night operation, since the associated risk would have been addressed. Routes might have been suggested as part of the route risk assessment, where there would be less risk to the public (imagine if this explosion had happened near a settlement).

If they had requested forensic technical audits of their fleets, the collision might have been prevented (whether the vehicle was allowed to operate at night, or not). Rear-end collisions typically involve driver fatigue (addressed earlier), faulty brakes (which would have been detected) or reduced visible performance due to poor light maintenance (which would have been detected).

By providing (basic, DIY) crash investigation training to drivers and fleet managers, controllers and first responding staff, they would have been able to gather the evidence before the explosion occurred (which would have been vital), even if the explosion was not predictable.

Lastly, we need to address law enforcement. It has become common practice for police officers to chase witnesses off scenes, to prevent everyone from taking any photos and for them even to forcefully confiscate cameras of members of the public and then delete photos already taken. This is a trend based on the ‘this is my scene’ mentality and the ill-conceived notion that no one is allowed to photograph the scene.

Even in an official capacity, as a police reservist, I have been faced with some of my colleagues questioning whether or not I should photograph crash scenes. These days even firemen, paramedics, traffic officers, and even tow truck operators are suddenly also in on the act and are preventing people from taking photos at crash scenes.

Yet, in the well-publicized Jub Jub trial, it was the cellphone footage taken by children that shed light on the cause of the collision and which led to his conviction. In the Polokwane explosion incident, it was an in-vehicle recorder that gave us an insight into the severity of the explosion and a similar recording system revealed all in the renowned Pinetown Crash in which a truck ploughed through an intersection, killing 24 people in KwaZulu-Natal.

Law enforcement would be well served to measure the benefit of third-party photographic or video evidence against the risk of a total loss of evidence, as was certainly the case with the Polokwane explosion. If members of the public had been there and if they had taken photographs before the explosion, the loss of those police officers would not have been in vain. It is unlikely that any evidence they collected would have survived the blast.

What little (if any) evidence might have been captured by members of the public might have been the only evidence that would have been available to the court and for analysis of what exactly happened.

As a police officer, whenever I arrived at a crash scene and detected a ‘foreign’ photographer, I would not chase him away at all. He was, after all, in possession of vital evidence if he had already started taking photographs or even video. What I used to do is approach him (or her) and determine if any photographs had been taken.

If so, I would explain that he/she was now a material witness (through their actions), that he/she would need to give me a copy of those photos and that he/she would probably need to testify to those photos.

Finally, removing the photos would result in their having destroyed evidence. Now the person could decide if he/she would want to continue (and testify) or think twice about doing so again in the future. So, essentially, this is a better way of discouraging the practice, while still benefiting from it.

I consider it vital that police officers (and perhaps the politicians) start to educate the public on the proper photography of crash (also often crime) scenes. If everyone knew how to photograph and knew what constitutes usable evidence over ‘entertainment value’, then perhaps the presence of properly collected evidence would offset the poor conviction rates we are so inclined to complain about.

My advice to clients would be to ensure all their operational staff undergo a practical crash investigation course that is based on real-world experience. Such a course should educate them on their rights (to investigate or gather evidence), should educate them on the proper at-scene protocol to follow when dealing with (other) services, and to ensure their efforts form part of an all-encompassing package of evidence that can assist any competent court.

In short, police officers and truck drivers need to blow up on scenes. If sound principles are followed, if parties co-operate and if operators take active and intelligent steps toward risk mitigation, risk management, and post-event analysis, perhaps the carnage could be reduced on our roads.

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