The Gqeberha aunts of navy officer Lieutenant Commander Gillian Hector, who died during a submarine incident offshore in Kommetjie on Wednesday, are struggling to come to terms with what happened.
Anita Malouw and Francine Langeveldt, who are the sisters of Hector's father, said on Thursday said the ordeal was like a nightmare.
Hector made headlines in 2019 as South Africa's only female officer to navigate a submarine.
According to YOU, she was the first female South African navy officer to work on a submarine, the first woman in Africa to do so and one of the few women naval submarine officers in the world.
While still dealing with the task of informing other relatives of their beloved niece's untimely death, Malouw said the moment she heard the news, she broke down.
"Gillian was such an endearing person and had so much love for her family. That is why I couldn't stop crying. She was such a pillar of support.
"That is all I can say right now," she whispered.
Langeveldt wept as she spoke about her brother's daughter.
"It is a great loss for our family and the worst part is that you can physically feel the loss," she said as she sobbed uncontrollably.
"Her husband is shattered. He can't even speak," she added.
Hector was born and bred in Schauderville, Gqeberha. She was a Malouw before she married her longtime boyfriend, Romero Hector, in April 2021.
They have a son, Tristan, who turns two in December.
Langeveldt described Hector as "down to earth" and someone who never acted superior despite her career successes.
"That is what everyone adored about Gillian. She was always humble, always herself. She did her job with dignity and loved her family with her heart and soul," she said.
Langeveldt said another member of the family died in a similar manner.
"The family has previously experienced a trauma like this," she said.
The aunts added that Hector has another cousin in the navy, who was tasked with delivering the dreadful delivering the news to her husband and mother, Bernadette Malouw.
"We are feeling all of these emotions together. The pain of losing our Gillian is unbearable but we also know that we need to be willing to face the pain."
News24 previously reported that the three officers died when a "huge wave" hit the submarine.
Preliminary reports suggest the two men who died were washed out to sea after the wave hit during what appeared to be an exercise and that Hector's body was later recovered from the submarine by the NSRI.