Man finds family he saved from drowning after 33 years

Thirty-three years after a young boy saved the lives of a mother and her three children who were trapped in their car after it plunged into a water canal in Brits, he finally managed to trace them this week after they have all, unknowingly, been searching for each other through the years.

Francis Cloete (49) was 17 when Estelle Joubert, then 24, and her three sons, aged 4, 2 and six months, were trapped in their car after it plunged into the canal just outside Brits on a Saturday afternoon in November 1988. Francis removed the unconscious family from the submerged vehicle and almost lost his own life when the car fell on him. Francis never again saw or heard of the family after that day, until the past weekend when he managed to finally trace them through Facebook.

“We lived right on the water canal and my brother was outside when the accident happened. He came running, calling me to come help. I was a lifesaver at the Brits swimming pool at the time. When I got to the canal, all I could see were bubbles, and then the rear end of the car came to the surface,’ he recalled.

“I jumped into the water and saw what I thought was a doll, floating in the water. I put it on the bank and only then realised it was a baby.” Francis managed to get the other two boys out of the vehicle through the open back window and passed them on to his lifesaving coach, Tallie Taljaard who was later the editor of a Brits newspaper, and his father who started resuscitation.

“Their mother was trapped in her safety belt in the front seat and I could not get to her. In the meantime people have fastened a rope to the car’s front wheels to try and lift it. I was under the vehicle trying to break the windscreen when the roped snapped and the car fell on me. The windscreen had finally broken and I could reach the woman, cutting open my shoulder in the process. Her safety belt was stuck and I had to break it to free her.”

Francis brought her to the bank and started resuscitation. “She was unconscious for about 30 minutes before she opened her eyes. After the ambulance took them away, I never heard anything about them again. But the incident stayed with me, and the scar on my shoulder and my finger that was damaged while trying to break the safety belt, were a constant reminder of that day. Through the years I have often thought about them and had at times tried to trace them. That day had changed my life. I went on to become a lifesaver on the coast as well as a pastor. I wanted to help people.”

Estelle Joubert en Francis Cloete

On Saturday he once again attempted to trace the family by posting on a Brits Facebook group. The same weekend he managed to make contact with them. Francis now lives in Randfontein and the Joubert family in Meyerton.

The scene where the accident took place..

Estelle, now 57, is delighted that they had finally managed to make contact. She too had through the years tried to find the young man who had saved their lives, but she did not know his name. “There was not a day in my life that went by without me thinking about the accident. If it was not for Francis, we would all be dead and I could never thank him. I remember that day like it was today. I was trapped upside down under the water and I could not undo my safety belt. It was stuck. I reached back to feel for my children. When I realised I was not going to free myself, I told God it was fine to take me, but to please spare the lives of my babies. I then felt a hairy arm that I knew did not belong to one of my children, and I passed out. The next thing I remember was spewing out water like a hosepipe on the side of the canal.”

Estelle was in ICU for two weeks and the three boys were also kept in hospital for observation. “There were algae in my lungs and doctors struggled to clear it. But we all left the hospital without any complications, even though we were deprived of oxygen for quite some time.”

“That day changed all our lives. I appreciate every small thing in life, just breathing is a privilege and I kept on reminding my children about his throughout their lives. I even teach my grandchildren this, and how to appreciate life.”

Francis and the Joubert family plan to meet within the next week, and finally they can thank the young man who saved their lives in person.