No debriefing after fatal Joburg blaze‚ firefighters claim

27 September 2018 - 17:21 By Naledi Shange
Three firefighters died as they tried to fight a blaze that engulfed the top of the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD on September 5 2018.
Three firefighters died as they tried to fight a blaze that engulfed the top of the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD on September 5 2018.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

The Johannesburg fireman who found the lifeless bodies of two of his colleagues inside the Bank of Lisbon building was not debriefed on what happened to cause the men – and another who fell from the 23rd floor – to lose their lives.

In fact‚ it emerged on Thursday‚ despite three weeks passing since the deadly downtown Johannesburg blaze‚ firefighters’ supervisors are yet to debrief them and not all of them have had counselling.

“To be honest‚ I don’t know about a debriefing. Two hours after the rescue‚ I left. I’m not sure if there was a debriefing after that‚” said Tebogo Khoduga‚ who discovered the bodies of two of his colleagues when he rushed into the building to try and save them.

“But we have to have a debriefing to say what we did right and what we did wrong‚” he said.

His colleague‚ Muzikayise Zwane‚ said: “If it [the debriefing] happened‚ they should have called us‚ the people who were on scene. If they didn’t call us‚ it means it hasn’t happened.”

Zwane had witnessed how their third colleague lay sprawled on the ground after falling from the 23rd floor. He has not yet had any counselling following the ordeal‚ but had instead already returned to work.

Khoduga said he briefly spoke to a councillor last week‚ two weeks after the tragedy. He was asked what happened and how he was coping‚ and was told to get in contact if he needed further assistance.

Zwane and Khoduga were talking to the media shortly after a press briefing where their union‚ the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of SA (Demawusa) was detailing their plan of action following the tragedy.

The building‚ which was occupied by several government departments‚ was reported to have had only 21% compliance standards.

When firefighters got inside trying to douse the flames they found that fire extinguishers and water hoses were not working.

Demawusa on Thursday expressed its frustrations at the apparent lack of competency of senior officials‚ who failed to give directions to the firefighters. They called for a skills audits to be done.

The union said it was performing its own investigations into the fire and was also calling for a judicial inquiry into deaths of the firefighters - not just from this incident but several others where they say firefighters were sent to their deaths in buildings which were known not to meet compliance standards.

The union also called for the government to appoint a minister who would deal solely with their profession‚ which they said although was integral it was highly neglected.

Painting a picture of how grim things were for firefighters in the Johannesburg region‚ especially with the large shortfall of equipment‚ Demawusa said: “Right now‚ the public would shocked to now that there are a very high percentage of emergency calls for assistance in combating a fire that are not responded to. Callers are told‚ ‘We are sorry‚ we do not have the appliances available at this time. Please try and contain the fire as best you can.’”

The union said there seven fire trucks which were meant to service around 5 million people in the Johannesburg CBD.

Zwelinzima Vavi‚ of the SA Federation of Trade Unions‚ which is in support of Demawusa‚ reiterated his call for heads of government officials who knew that the building fell short of compliance levels.

He lambasted government officials who he said were active and visible following the incident but had since gone silent.

"There is dead silence. They have long forgotten. The speeches have been shredded. Their crocodile tears have been wiped‚" Vavi said.