Firefighters were ‘sent into a death trap’
Ex-firefighters say their colleagues panicked as condemned Joburg building burned - and they are demanding to know why
“They were sent to their deaths.”
This was the consensus by former city fire officers who were trying to make sense of the deaths of three firefighters who died in Johannesburg on Wednesday while trying to rescue dozens of government officials trapped in a burning building in the inner city.
The building, which was condemned one week ago in a report by the Gauteng infrastructure development department, houses the provincial health and housing departments and the offices of the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.
The men died as police helicopter pilots tried in vain to rescue the firefighters and civilians trapped on a narrow ledge on the 23rd floor where the blaze had broken out.
One of the firemen fell to his death, apparently while smashing open a window to escape the smoke and flames. His two colleagues are believed to have been found on the floor close to the window he had fallen from.
“He was trying to break the window. He went first and then he went for the second time and then the window fell out with him,” an eyewitness, Mandla Ngcobo, told Times Select.
Ngcobo, who was standing on the street when it happened, described the seconds leading up to the fireman’s death.
He said it appeared the firefighter tried to use his weight to break open the window and to get to the ledge.
“I think he went with the elbow first time, and then he went for the second time, [then] he went full force with his body.”
‘Everyone is traumatised’
Ngcobo described the scene as “horrible”.
“You can imagine from the 23rd floor ... It’s traumatising. Everyone is traumatised,” he said.
“One of the paramedics ... when she went there [to the body] she just dropped everything and just ran away crying.”
Former firefighters are now demanding an independent inquiry to determine what caused their colleagues to “panic” and succumb to the fire.
Wyand Engelbrecht, a former Midrand fire station commander who now runs Fire OPs SA, said he knew the building well from his 40-year career as a city firefighter.
“It’s a complete fire hazard. It’s a maze of passages and the ledge that those firefighters and civilians were stuck on is no bigger than 60cm. It’s barely wide enough for a person’s foot. You don’t want to be trapped up there. It’s a complete death trap that they were sent into.”
He said firefighters would have had to take the stairwell to the 23rd floor. “They would have been exhausted and under pressure.”
To fight a fire such as the one on Wednesday, firefighters would have needed full air cylinders, their “irons” (axe, pikes and a halligan tool) to break open doors, ceilings and water hoses, said Engelbrecht.
“Then they must have their lifelines, which they are attached to at all times. These follow their entry into a structure. While they operate on the fire floor, there has to be a bridgehead [safety area] on one of the floors below where back-up crew are stationed along with spare air cylinders, hoses and tools. An incident command centre must be outside controlling what is happening inside.
“These are the minimum standard operating procedures when fighting a building fire like this.”
He added that if firefighters got into difficulty they were taught not to panic, and how to get to safety.
“You follow your safety line. If you get disconnected from it, you crawl along the floor following the hose, which leads to water hydrant outside. As you crawl you spray yourself and your colleagues down.
“The last thing you do is try to break out of a window. They would have known the fire was up on the 23rd floor. They would have known the dangers of trying to get on the ledge. Following safety lines and hoses is drummed into you during training.
“It’s clear they panicked. That something went horribly wrong and they made for the windows. There must be an inquiry to see what went wrong and why.”
Former Lonehill fire station commander Paul Treleven agreed.
He said initial photographs of the fire showed white smoke coming from the building, indicating that it was controlled and enclosed.
“Something clearly went wrong. Getting onto or trying to get onto the ledge means that things are seriously out of control and they were fleeing for their lives.”
Treleven said the circumstances under which they entered the building, and with what equipment, needed to be investigated.
Johannesburg public safety MMC Michael Sun disputed claims that the firefighters were sent to their deaths and that proper firefighting safety protocols were not followed.
“I am outraged by these allegations. An investigation is under way,” he said.
He said a proper command and control centre was established and there were enough spare oxygen cylinders, safety lines and water hoses.
Sun said the firemen initially entered the building to evacuate everyone, and then to contain and fight the fire.
“They entered the building with water hoses. They are trained and know how to handle fire incidents. Six fire engines and an air truck [used to fill air cylinders] were on the scene.”
‘Could have been avoided’
Sun’s dispute of the allegations follows calls by Columbus Ncuthe, regional chairperson of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, for “heads to fall” over the fire and deaths.
He said they had fought the Gauteng government for months to relocate employees from the building.
“That building was not compliant [with health and safety regulations] at all. It is nothing new to the Gauteng government. Our members have been complaining about the safety and poor work conditions.”
He said the deaths could have been avoided had the provincial government listened to their concerns.
Gauteng government spokesperson Thabo Masebe said they only became aware of the compliance issues a week ago when the Infrastructure Development Department issued a report showing the building only met 21% of the occupational and health standards
He said anything below 85% meant a building was not supposed to be occupied.
“The affected departments were still in a process to find alternative buildings.”
Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, referring to the fact that the building was not up to standard, said efforts to put out the blaze were hampered by a lack of sufficient water pressure in the building, “an important safety requirement in a building of this size”.
An employee, who did not want to be named, and who was in the building at the time of the fire, said it was a terrifying experience.
“We just ran. We left everything behind ... I didn’t know what was happening. I ran out of my office into the passage. People were trying to go down the lifts while others were running down the stairs to try and escape.
“I ran down the stairs as fast I could. When I got outside the building was covered in thick black smoke. It was terrifying.”