Building where fatal fire started was bad‚ but it was not the worst

06 September 2018 - 17:13 By Poloko Tau
Flames are spreading through the building that houses three provincial departments in the Johannesburg CBD on September 6, 2018.
Flames are spreading through the building that houses three provincial departments in the Johannesburg CBD on September 6, 2018.
Image: Masi Losi

The Bank of Lisbon building which caught fire on Wednesday - ultimately resulting in the death of three firefighters - was not the worst of the government facilities recently assessed for health and safety compliance.

This despite the building receiving a 21% compliance score.

Gauteng infrastructure development MEC Jacob Mamabolo made the shock admission on Thursday‚ following the fatal blaze at the building‚ which housed at least three government departments in the Johannesburg CBD.

One of the three firefighters who died in the fire fell from the building‚ while the two others died inside. There were no other reported fatalities.

The fire continued to burn on Thursday.

Mamabolo said that the Bank of Lisbon building was among eight Gauteng government-owned office blocks that failed to comply with health and safety standards according to a conditional assessment report that came out just over a week ago.

“Some buildings are below Bank of Lisbon‚” he said.

However‚ he did not specify which buildings those were.

Mamabolo said a conditional assessment of buildings was commissioned after the labour department raised health and safety red flags at Bank of Lisbon. A decision was taken to move employees out of several floors that were condemned at the building.

The MEC said his department was finalising contracts with landlords of buildings where two of the government department - co-operative governance and traditional affairs‚ and human settlements - would be relocated to by November.

He said government had started hunting for alternative office space for the two departments since March this year.

But now that the building has been gutted‚ Mamabolo said processes will start from next week to relocate the health department‚ which was the third department housed there‚ elsewhere.

Until new office space was found‚ employees of the three departments that occupied Bank of Lisbon would stay home.

“We will not rush employees back into any buildings until we are sure they are compliant. We don’t want to move people into risky buildings‚” Mamabolo said.

He added‚ however‚ that they “won’t get workers staying home for long”.

The MEC made an appeal for people not to speculate on the cause of the fire and allow investigations to be concluded first. He said that while the building was not compliant‚ any building - including “those that are compliant and new buildings” - can catch fire.

Mamabolo said the families of the three firefighters who lost their lives while battling the flames on Wednesday should find closure.

“We managed to evacuate 1‚115 employees when the fire started on Wednesday. There is a need to investigate what caused the deaths of three firefighters when 1‚115 people could be evacuated successfully‚” he said.

“If any wrong is found on my side‚ the premier [of Gauteng‚ David Makhura] must deal with it. I am willing to take full responsibility if I am wrong.”

Meanwhile‚ Mamabolo said Makhura has asked for firefighting reinforcements from the Ekurhuleni and Tshwane metropolitan municipalities to assist in fighting the flames that were still raging at the CBD building.

The fire‚ which started on the 23rd floor and kept firefighters busy overnight‚ was now spreading to lower floors. Several streets around the building were closed for traffic while neighbouring blocks of offices and a student accommodation building were evacuated earlier on Thursday.

Smoke could still be seen billowing from at least one floor‚ with sporadic flames also spotted‚ by Thursday afternoon.

Mamabolo said officials were confident the fire would be contained by the end of Thursday given more manpower from neighbouring metropolitan municipalities.