Inside the hellfire: If you didn't have a cellphone, you died
A firefighter who rushed to save his colleagues tells us about the horror inside Joburg's fatal September 5 fire
In his ears forever will ring the voice of his colleague, pleading from within the burning building: “Tebogo, please hurry. The fire is coming towards us.”
Nor will Johannesburg firefighter Tebogo Khoduga ever forget the horror of navigating the dark, smoke-filled corridors of the Bank of Lisbon building engulfed in flames, desperate to find his trapped colleagues.
Finally, on the 24th floor, Khoduga found the firemen’s hoses without a single drop of water.
“Even the hoses were burnt.”
Three weeks after three of his colleagues died while fighting the blaze in central Johannesburg, Khoduga retraced his painful steps in an interview with Times Select.
In the end, he believes the firefighters who survived were those fortunate enough to have their cellphones on them.
On the fateful day, September 5, he was enjoying his off day in his living quarters at the fire station when news reached him that his colleagues were trapped in a burning building in the Johannesburg CBD.
He and another colleague rushed to the scene.
“We went to firefighters who were on the scene [outside the building], and they said they were still strategising, trying to establish how they will get inside the building.
“We decided to go up,” Khoduga said, referring to himself and four colleagues.
“When I got to the eighth floor, [firefighter] Mahlathi phoned me and said [he had been told] that we were coming. He said he was on 23rd floor. But we passed floor 23. We went to 24,” he recalls, saying they had lost count of the flights of the stairs they had climbed.
“He phoned me again and said: ‘Tebogo please hurry. The fire is coming towards us,’” he said.
They made their way back to the 23rd floor.
“We could even feel the heat in the gloves that we were wearing. The phone that I had – the screen even cracked. The cover melted, it was burnt.
“[Mahlathi] phoned me again because he was very stressed … I went where it was hot. I went straight, but I couldn’t find him. I phoned him again.”
He eventually found his way to them – but was stopped in his tracks by the heartbreaking discovery of the body of a colleague.
“He was lying there. He was totally burnt.”
But he had to keep moving.
“I could see a window on the other side [of the passage]. There was light and I could see that that is from where they [the trapped firefighters] had probably jumped [out onto the ledge].
“I went straight and found my other colleague ... He was sitting there on the floor, his head against the window.
“I checked him and he was already dead.”
He found his other colleagues outside on a thin ledge.
“Two of those firefighters had suffered severe burn wounds.”
He stayed with them until they were rescued. These colleagues are still recovering in hospital.
Khoduga is convinced their cellphones – and not their firefighting equipment – saved their lives, as this enabled them to contact their colleagues on the outside.
“Normally they don’t take their cellphones. If on that day the guys did not have their phones, it could have been an even bigger tragedy.”