AT least 14 members of a local church drowned after a huge flash flood swept their congregation away during a religious river service.
The devastating deluge washed 33 terrified worshippers as they attended a ritual on the Jukskei River in Johannesburg, South Africa on Saturday.
Officials believe many were taken by surprise and washed to their deaths after heavy rain caused an unstoppable torrent.
At the time, the religious group, from a church in the township of Alexandra, were reportedly standing on rocks or in ankle deep water as a pastor performed a church service to cleanse his flock.
Reports suggest several members of the group managed to scramble to higher ground but those caught by the current were swept away.
An eye witness told local media:”The river was as usual then there was suddenly a very loud noise from upstream and this half a metre high wave of water just came at us all.
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“There was screaming and panic and then many were just gone."
Rescue teams worked through the weekend in response to the incident and confirmed 14 bodies, including two children, had been recovered up until Sunday night.
As of Monday, two members of the congregation are still listed as missing by their family.
City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said:”The total number of bodies recovered on Sunday is 12 and including 2 that were discovered on Saturday makes a total of 14 dead in this drowning incident.
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“The search will resume today and we’ve got some areas that we still need to explore which might also add to the 14 bodies we have so the death toll could rise.
“We think there is one maybe two people still missing and we are hoping we may recover them if they have indeed drowned so that we can bring closure to families.
“These sort of religious ceremonies are common along the river and we had put out a warning to residents previously about the danger of such rituals along the river.
“We have been receiving a lot of rain over the city of Johannesburg in the last three months and most of the river streams are full with risks of flash flooding.
“Our message to congregants who normally practise these kinds of rituals and are tempted to go to river streams is to exercise caution when they do so."
Local investigators believe many of the congregants who were washed down the Jukskei River were trapped under debris in the polluted waters and drowned unable to extricate themselves.
Others were washed a long way downstream and may have been swept down storm drains or along tributaries and dozens of rescue workers are searching them.
Congregations often gather along the banks or in the waters of South African rivers to conduct cleansing or baptism rituals and drownings are often reported.
In June four people drowned at a baptism ceremony in Limpopo Province and last month the Water and Sanitation Department warned against such ceremonies.
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Rescue workers and firefighters are still searching for the missing people with emergency services indicating the chances of finding them alive are remote.
Spokesman Mr Mulaudzi added: “Our only hope is that they may have got out of the river themselves and returned home unaware that we are searching for them”.
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