LISTEN | Woman says daughter died after refusing to jump out of window to escape Usindiso building inferno

01 February 2024 - 08:02
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Ash and smoke-blackened walls in a passage in the Usindiso building.
Ash and smoke-blackened walls in a passage in the Usindiso building.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

Busisiwe Mhlebi, from the Eastern Cape, sobbed on Wednesday as she told the commission of inquiry into the Usindiso building fire about waking up after being in hospital for two days and being told her 16-year-old daughter had died.

The horror of the fire in the Johannesburg CBD on August 31 last year that killed 77 people is being relived as victims give their witness testimonies.

Her daughter refused to jump out of the window on the fourth floor to escape the inferno and the last thing she said was “No Mommy”.

“We went to sleep early because there was no electricity. I was woken up by my two year-old baby needing formula. I made a bottle and started feeding him. I was holding him seated on the bed when I heard people screaming there was a fire.

“The people in the building opposite ours were staring at our building. I opened the window to check what was happening and the smoke started coming in. I realised it was thick and I woke up my 16-year-old daughter and my partner.

“I told them we have to leave. When we left the room we couldn’t see where we were going. The young one was crying and coughing relentlessly, I rushed into the room to take a blanket to cover us,” Mhlebi said.

They struggled to find their way through the thick smoke.

“It was so dark. In my mind, I knew we had no choice but to jump out of the building. I told the father to strap the baby on his waist and jump out of the window. My daughter would jump after me, hoping she would land on top of me and be less injured and survive.

“When I was ready to jump out, my daughter started hesitating and ran towards the door. She screamed ‘No Mommy’. She got scared. At that moment I was already out the window, there was nothing I could do. I woke up in hospital after two days and my partner told me we had lost her in the fire.

“I was badly injured, I couldn’t see myself but I was told I was bleeding through my nose, ears, mouth and my head was injured.”

She testified that before the August fire, there had been another fire in the building when a man was shot and his body allegedly burnt in his room. “But the fire wasn’t as bad as this one.”

Mhlebi told the commission she moved into the building in 2018 to live with her oldest daughter as she was struggling financially. Before that she was a singer. Her partner came to live with her when men started occupying the building.

“Then there were criminals, people were killed and sometimes the police would do raids. We lived in fear. At first, there was water and electricity but at some point, it was switched off by the city,” she said.

Another witness, Nqobile Shabalala, testified the fire happened a day before her birthday. On that fateful night, her partner had visited from Namibia to celebrate the occasion with her.

When they were awakened by the screams, her partner opened the window and the curtain caught fire.

Shabalala said she was yelling and her friends came to her rescue and told her they should jump. She hesitated.

“I couldn’t breathe any more. I used a wet cloth to cover my mouth. I started to walk around looking for stairs to get out. I looked down from a window and I saw there were people down there. I yelled for my sister who was outside and asked her to put a mattress under the window but she didn’t hear me.

“I then went down and when I was about to reach the ground floor I saw some light. That’s when I collapsed. I woke up after 30 minutes. Some people took me outside,” said Shabalala.

After regaining consciousness she attempted to go back inside to look for her boyfriend. “I feared his family would blame me should he die. But people from the building stopped me from going back inside. But it turned out he jumped out,” she said.

She said emergency services arrived and struggled to put out the fire. “The firefighters stood for about 20 minutes and couldn’t do anything as they spoke among themselves that there was no water. They had to go back and get a water truck.”


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