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Reconnecting with rescuers on that dark, stormy night

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Many stories begin with the setting of a “dark and stormy night”. The difference, in this case, is that this story is true.

It was a cold and rainy evening in Johannesburg almost two decades ago when Kim O’ Hagan’s husband and son ran into trouble en route to a Shabbat dinner. Seventeen years later – in November 2021 – the family reached out to those who rescued them, bringing the story full circle.

Recounting the story to the SA Jewish Report, Johannesburg research director O’Hagan recalls how “the evening after my husband Simon’s 39th birthday [30 April 2004], Simon and my son, Liam, were en route to Liam’s grandmother’s house in Cyrildene for Shabbat dinner.

“Simon was doing a favour for my brother, Jonathan Selvan, by delivering his work vehicle [a fully equipped Peugeot Boxer with shelving in which one could stand up] to Cyrildene. I can just imagine Liam, who was 2½ years old at the time, excitedly sitting next to his dad in front of this huge vehicle. My daughter, Erin, and I had driven ahead in a separate car.”

There was a light drizzle, and the streetlights weren’t working. “On turning the corner into Houghton Drive, some of the shelving slipped, and Simon stopped the vehicle and stepped out to check what had fallen.” It was at that moment that he fell into a manhole.

“He recalled the event by saying, ‘I stepped on to the pavement, but the pavement wasn’t there’. The manhole was rectangular and luckily, not very deep. He smashed his shoulder and fractured several ribs, but fortunately didn’t hit his head. He was in excruciating pain and unable to get out to rescue Liam who at this point, was still strapped into his car seat.”

Simon tried unsuccessfully to flag down passing motorists who were unlikely to have seen him in the dimly lit area and even less likely to take a chance and stop on the side of the road.

“In the meantime, a couple was returning home and had driven into their driveway on Houghton Drive,” continues O’Hagan. “On seeing the commotion, the woman, who I was to learn was journalist Tanya Farber, rushed to rescue Liam from the car seat. Her boyfriend (now husband), Jeremy, made contact with me and my family in Cyrildene.

“By this stage, Simon had forced himself out of the manhole, clearly fighting the pain in a desperate attempt to get to his little boy. Netcare responded, and Simon was given morphine so that they could mobilise his shoulder and place him on a stretcher. He was then taken to Milpark Hospital, operated on, and discharged several days later.”

The family were grateful to be safe, and moved on with their lives. But tragedy struck when Simon died suddenly in 2006 of unrelated causes. Liam was four and his sister Erin was six.

“I have tried to instil memories of their father by relating stories to them and reminding them of the people their dad knew, and who played an important role in their dad’s life,” says O’Hagan. “Liam has even less of a concept of his father than Erin due to being younger at the time. So those memories become that much more important as one goes through life and begins to comprehend the part of your life that’s missing.”

In that context, the dark and stormy night when Liam and his father were rescued has become even more pivotal. “Liam says that he has few memories of his father, and the few memories that he does have become all the more significant,” says his mother. “Considering that he was 2½ years old, he clearly didn’t understand the gravity of the situation that night. Liam remembers seeing lights out of the front windscreen and being held by a really friendly lady. He says he has no doubt he enjoyed the attention! Liam questions what his dad would think of him now, and he suddenly thought to himself that this was a really big moment in his life that he has never really looked back on. He was curious as to how far back he could remember, and this was in fact one of his earliest memories.”

So, out of the blue a few nights ago, “Liam suddenly asked me if I knew the name of the people who had rescued him that night. We had never really discussed it before. It took me a few minutes to think, and I told Liam, but he didn’t tell me he was going to try to contact Tanya.

“Having told him that Tanya was a journalist, he started by looking on LinkedIn and Facebook. He found her email address and decided to email her. Part of Liam’s thought process at the time was that because of the many losses he had suffered recently [we recently lost Simon’s brother, Liam’s uncle, to COVID-19], he decided it was important to reach out to Tanya.”

The first O’Hagan knew of Liam’s email was when he read her Farber’s response. “We were both so deeply touched and the emotions took us right back to that night.” The two parties decided to meet, and “Liam, Erin, and I are all excited to meet Tanya and Jeremy as we feel that they are part of our connection with Simon. We were so touched by Tanya’s warmth and her memories of the night, as well as those of her husband, and her sister, Yael.

“Yael spoke to Simon while he was in the manhole. That’s something so special that I needed to hear, because by the time I got to the scene of the accident, my only vision was of Simon’s desperate struggle to get out.”

She has no doubt that they will maintain their new connection. “When someone dies, although their intentions are good, few people maintain contact. I have always tried to keep Simon’s memory alive by keeping up relationships with people who have touched our lives,” says O’Hagan. “The wonderful thing about our community is the connections we all have. It doesn’t matter who the hero was on the day, but the fact that Liam reached out, that there are such special humans out there, is what makes me proud to be part of this wonderful Jewish community.”

Farber says the reconnection has also been extremely meaningful. “I remember at the time understanding Simon’s panic of being stuck in the manhole while little Liam was stranded in the car. But it was only when I became a parent myself not long afterwards that I truly understood the depth of it,” she says.

“Receiving the email from Liam all these years later was a life-affirming experience for me. He and his family are incredibly special people. It has reminded me how strangers’ lives can intertwine in ways we don’t expect, and yet invisible connections persist.”

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