‘There was no water’ - Firefighters reached out their hands in vain bid to halt blaze

12 September 2018 - 15:26 By Naledi Shange
Fellow firefighters sing at the memorial service held at Ellis Park on September 12 2018 to pay their respect to the fallen heroes who died while fighting the blaze in the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD.
Fellow firefighters sing at the memorial service held at Ellis Park on September 12 2018 to pay their respect to the fallen heroes who died while fighting the blaze in the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

"There is a disaster in fire departments all over. We have been bailing out the SABC and Eskom with money. Why can you not use that money to buy new fire engines?"

This is the appeal of Mike Matlawe‚ a fire station manager at Fairview‚ in Jeppe‚ south of Johannesburg.

Emergency service personnel in the City of Johannesburg on Wednesday described how they literally put their bodies on the line last week when confronted with a raging fire and inadequate water supply in an office block housing government employees.

Colleagues of the three firefighters who died - Mduduzi Ndlovu‚ 40‚ Simphiwe Moropana‚ 28‚ and Khathutshelo Muedi‚ 37 – were speaking at their memorial service at Ellis Park Stadium following last week’s fire in the Johannesburg CBD. Muedi and Moropana were from the Fairview Fire Station. Ndlovu worked at the Johannesburg Central fire station. Several firefighters are still receiving treatment in hospital.

Matlawe said from the podium: "In 2015 we were in the same building mourning the death of two other firefighters. I thought those were the last but it was only the beginning. What went wrong?"

Firefighter Muzikayise Zwane from Central Fire Station said: “At 10.13am we got the call and we were the first response. I gave them all their equipment and told them to go up. I said I would wait for their instruction to turn the water on.

He got a call from a firefighter: “He said there was no water and asked that we send a rescue team to help them out as others had been hurt.”

Zwane described the wounds suffered by some firefighters. "Their hands were burnt because they were using them to defend themselves against the flames. There was nothing else they could defend themselves with because there was no water."

He said he was at the truck when he suddenly heard a thud. That was the firefighter who had fallen down from the building. Zwane looked at the crushed firefighter but could not recognise him. They had to search his pockets to find his work card in order to identify him.

Zwane laid the blame on government.

"Government killed the people. We never expected to find a government building that did not comply. There was no water in that building."

Firefighter L Majozi from Fairview Fire Station took to the podium to honour Moropana. He said whenever Moropana was called out for a fire‚ he would do so with energy and would always say "it is rumbling".

Firefighter Simphiwe Sibiya from Fairview told mourners: "I'm here to say goodbye to my three brothers. They were not colleagues to me‚ they were my brothers. On the day of the incident‚ I was with them. It was only Mdu who I did not see that day. I only saw him once he was quiet."

He said he and his colleagues were qualified for the job and were dedicated to it.

"Whenever we were done fighting a fire‚ we would say we didn't fight that blaze but we simply blew it out. We would be proud of our work because we were doing something we loved.

"...Firefighting is a skill we knew. It is a skill that we were breastfed. I doused many flames along with them. They were skilled. People can say whatever they like but they were not there that day."

Sibiya said he'd never seen a blaze like that before. When he got to the 21st floor‚ he could see the flames coming from the top. He turned to his colleague to say‚ “we will burn in here”.

He did not want to point fingers at anyone‚ saying: “If we play the blame game all the time‚ we won't grow and we won't move forward.”

“We are not here to point fingers at anyone. Can we not point fingers at each other? This is not the time. We are here to say our goodbyes.”

EMT Sibiya said: "Healing comes to people in different ways. Healing will come to the families if they find out what happened to their loved ones."

At a memorial held at Ellis Park arena on Wednesday, September 12 2018, firefighters revealed gruesome details of what led to the deaths of their colleagues on the fateful day they were sent to extinguish a fire at the government-owned Bank of Lisbon building in central Johannesburg.