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Cape mom swept off rocks in tragic accident



Two young brothers, aged nine and 11, shovel earth onto their mother’s grave, then stoically say kaddish. The rabbi leads the congregation in a rendition of Eshet Chayil. Elderly parents bid their daughter goodbye. These were just some of the devastating moments at the funeral of Laureen Rubin Leps (49) after she died in a freak drowning accident off the rocks in Sea Point in Cape Town on 4 July.

The Cape Town Jewish community is reeling at her senseless loss, but has rallied in support of her boys, their father, and her family.

The accident was a “bolt from the blue”, as Laureen went to be by the sea on one of the first sunny days in weeks, and was knocked off Rocklands Beach rocks by a massive wave during the unpredictable spring tide. When she was in the icy Atlantic, the area became misty, and rescuers at first battled to find her. Though two other drownings in the same area took place on the days either side of her death, they are unrelated.

“Laureen was going through a rough time, but she didn’t jump [into the water], and she wasn’t pushed,” says Laureen’s husband, Simon Leps. “That is what the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) report confirms. There was no foul play.”

Speaking at the time of the accident, Paula Leech, NSRI Table Bay duty controller said, “It appears that she was walking on the rocks when she may have been swept into the ocean. The eyewitnesses that raised the alarm and the swift emergency response by all involved is commended.”

The rescue efforts were extensive. At 14:18, NSRI Table Bay and NSRI Bakoven were alerted by City of Cape Town Law Enforcement officers to a drowning in progress at Rocklands Beach, according to Leech. “NSRI Bakoven and NSRI Table Bay rescue swimmers, Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services, the South African Police Service, and Netcare 911 ambulance services responded directly to the scene and joined law enforcement officers on the scene. Western Cape Government Health EMS rescue squad, an EMS ambulance, and the EMS rescue drone team responded.”

NSRI Bakoven duty crew launched the NSRI rescue craft Gemini Legend. When they got to the scene, they spotted a woman “drifting about 200m offshore”, but with the misty conditions, they quickly lost sight of her “with a heavy sea swell running”, according to Leech.

A helicopter, returning to the V&A Waterfront, was diverted to provide an “aerial situation report”, said Leech. While the Police Dive Unit was placed on alert, they were unable to catch a glimpse of her after that first sighting 200m or so from the shore. They launched a sweeping line search and then about 500m offshore in rough seas, they spotted and recovered her apparently lifeless body and carried her onto the rescue craft. They attempted CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) immediately, and were met by paramedics at the Granger Bay Water Club jetty. Paramedics at the club continued CPR.

“Laureen was tiny,” says her sister, Bianca Shifrin, who lives in Israel but flew to Cape Town as soon as she could when she was told of the accident in a heartbreaking phone call from her brother. “It wouldn’t have taken much to knock her. She always loved the sun and the beach, and many people go on the rocks. When they finally found her, she had been in the freezing water for about 15 minutes.”

Hypothermic and hanging onto life by a thread, Laureen was taken to a government hospital – Somerset Hospital – as there was no way of identifying her, and it was close to the scene of the accident. Her only identifying item was a necklace she was wearing, which was her name. “She was being cared for by emergency physician Dr Kirsten Cohen, who was excellent,” says her husband, Simon. “I think it was Dr Cohen who had the idea to put Laureen’s name into Facebook after seeing it on her necklace.”

“They looked at the Laureens listed,” says Bianca. They identified her by her picture, and then saw her siblings were listed. Only my brother, Harley [Rubin], was listed as being in Cape Town, and his number was on Facebook. That’s how they found our family.”

Harley and Simon went to the hospital, where they were told that Laureen had little chance of survival. “They gave her the best care, but they couldn’t save her,” says Simon. The family’s rabbi, Dovid Wineberg, and Laureen’s loved ones, including her children, gathered at her bedside. They were able to say goodbye, and she passed away soon after midnight, in the early hours of Wednesday, 5 July. Her official cause of death was drowning.

Laureen’s passing was part of a trio of tragedies that struck the same part of the Cape coastline in the space of three days. On Monday, 3 July, two tandem paragliders collided in the air above the Sea Point Promenade. One of the passengers, 58-year-old former Scotland International and Munster Rugby Elite Performance Officer, Greig Oliver, died when he landed in the sea.

Then, the day after Laureen’s death, an unidentified man drowned off Rocklands Beach, the same stretch of sand where Laureen had been. The tragedies come just weeks before World Drowning Prevention Day on 25 July, which raises awareness of drowning as a global public health concern and that “anyone can drown, no-one should”.

The brief sunshine that had led Laureen to the seaside was over by the time of the funeral, with the Cape of Storms living up to its name amidst wind, rain, and hail. Yet hundreds turned out for the funeral, with many more joining online from around the world. “And just for the funeral, it stopped raining,” says Bianca.

“I can’t accept that I don’t have a sister anymore,” she says through tears. Although they were 10 years apart and didn’t share a mother, they were extremely close. “The loss of a sibling isn’t the natural order of things. I don’t know life without Laureen. When her first child was born, I stayed up at night with her while she fed him, then I helped settle him. That’s how close we were. We came to Cape Town for Pesach, and thank G-d we did. Laureen hadn’t even met my youngest child. Now I have the most beautiful photo of them together.”

“My sons are mourners, but I’m not sure they fully understand,” says Simon. “Even for me, it feels surreal – like this is happening to someone else.”

But one thing that feels very real is the outpouring of support the family has received from the Jewish community. “We’re so grateful,” says Bianca. “It has been almost overwhelming – the love that has poured in. We don’t take it for granted. When you need it, the community rallies.” And even though Bianca will have to return to Israel, she knows her nephews and the family will have all the support they could need in such a tragic situation.

“It’s hard to describe the extent of comfort we have received,” says Simon. “To live amongst people like this – all I can say is thank you.”

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