Rescuers lose 'everything' in Cape fire
The crew of a rescue boat racing to save Knysna residents from their jetties on the lagoon had the eeriest possible start.
The first jetty they visited burst into flames.
"As our craft was on the jetty, the jetty ignited," said Jerome Simonis, National Sea Rescue Institute Knysna station commander.
It was not spontaneous combustion. A combination of heat, wind and flying embers turned much of Knysna into a hellish landscape of innumerable fires, including many on the town's famed and largely pristine western headland. For many residents, the only way out was across the lagoon.The first distress calls were from adjoining properties, one of them a popular tourist destination called Featherbed. It was its jetty that burst into flames while rescuers waited for residents to arrive. They never came. The next jetty was similarly deserted.
Unknown to the NSRI, the panicked residents had found another escape route.
Residents of Belvedere were not so lucky: for them there was no means of escape - but for a water-based evacuation.
The only problem was that at high tide the NSRI's available vessels did not fit under the main bridge cutting across the lagoon. Simonis said: "We had to take them out to the point and launch them [on the other side of the bridge] stern-first into a 100km/h wind."
The gamble worked. With the help of a local skipper, the team saved about 150 residents in a highly unusual rescue effort. "The order was to get everybody. We took out cats, dogs, even two people in wheelchairs. There were no serious injuries," he said.
"You don't practise for that sort of thing. I think the team did extremely well."