CAPE TOWN — At the scene of a recent car wreck on a dark South African road, an ambulance crew found a woman with severe injuries and no sign of a pulse or breath, and they pronounced her dead. She was taken to a mortuary and placed in one of the refrigerators — until several hours later, when someone noticed that she was breathing.
The woman was hospitalized that day, June 24, said Warrant Officer Peter Masooa of the Carletonville police station in Gauteng Province.
Lesemang Matuka, a spokesman for the Gauteng provincial health department, said Monday that the patient remained hospitalized and was in critical condition.
The case is under investigation, provincial officials said.
“Our crew is devastated — we are here to keep people alive,” said Gerrit Bradnick, operational manager for Distress Alert, the small private ambulance service that mistook the woman’s condition. “If there was any indication she was still alive, we would have treated her. This has been extremely traumatic for us.”
Ambulance workers in South Africa must be registered with the Health Professionals Council, but the Western Cape is the only province that regulates the business, and there is no national government oversight.
“Anyone can open an ambulance service — it’s completely unregulated outside the Western Cape,” said Jo Park-Ross, a practicing paramedic in Cape Town.
The woman was one of four people in a car traveling on an arterial road connecting the gold-mining town of Carletonville to Johannesburg, about 40 miles to the east, Mr. Bradnick said, adding that the driver had lost control and rolled “multiple times.”
Soon afterward, an ambulance from a different company, transporting a patient from an earlier, unrelated accident, collided with the wrecked car, completely blocking the road, he said. Neither the patient nor the paramedics in that ambulance were injured in that accident.
“It’s a very, very bad road,” Mr. Bradnick said. “Very dark. We have many accidents.”
When he reached the scene, there were three bodies lying amid the wreckage and one injured patient “walking around,” Mr. Bradnick said, and he spent most of the next hour dodging and diverting traffic, waiting for the police and another ambulance.
“Late at night on Saturday, people are returning from the clubs,” he said. “There’s a lot of drunk driving. Cars were coming at high speed and we kept having to run away through the ditches. It was absolute chaos.”
Finally, once the road had been cleared, it was possible to properly inspect the victims. The police began on the paperwork for fatal accidents. The three bodies were covered by silver blankets.
It was only near dawn, at the government mortuary in Carletonville, that officials reportedly heard one of the victims breathing.
“You never expect to open a fridge and find someone in there alive,” one worker told a local newspaper. “Can you imagine if we had begun the autopsy and killed her?”
The episode was first reported Monday morning by Times Live of South Africa, and by Monday afternoon most of South Africa’s major news outlets had short news reports about it.
There have been other cases of people being wrongly pronounced dead by medical professionals, including in the United States. In some instances, the mistakes worsened their conditions or even contributed to their deaths.
“The diagnosis of death may be extremely difficult,” said Ryan Blumenthal, senior forensic pathologist at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Forensic Medicine. “It can fool you, and it can fool you bad.”