Roof-top blast rocks Greenacres

[caption id="attachment_232637" align="aligncenter" width="630"] Chaos broke out in Ring Road, which encircles Greenacres Shopping Centre, at 10am yesterday when a huge roof-top explosion rocked the centre
Picture: Eugene Coetzee[/caption]

Shoppers panic trying to evacuate store with locked doors, writes Shaun Gillham

A roof-top blast and ensuing fire sparked a stampede in a shop at the Greenacres Shopping Complex in Port Elizabeth yesterday, with throngs of shoppers smashing their way through the store's locked doors.

There were no injuries in the incident, which resulted in mayhem in and around four neighbouring stores situated in Ring Road from about 10am.

The explosion on the roof, which firefighters at the scene attributed to the possible use of bitumen as part of a roof waterproofing process, was followed by a fire when rubble strewn on the roof caught alight.

The fire was quickly extinguished.

However, according to a customer shopping in a packed Mr Price subsidiary Clear -Out’s store, staff there had locked the doors of the store after the loud bang was heard from within the store.

“It was a very, very loud explosion. It sounded like tons of concrete dropped at a construction site,” Cornelia le Roux said.

“Everyone in the shop seemed to have heard it. “A few minutes later, staff started telling people that the roof was going to collapse and that they were going to evacuate the store.

“There must have been more than 100 people in there and there were long queues to the tills.

“People started stampeding for the door.

“Kids were crying and screaming, people were in a huge panic. “I was also terrified.”

[caption id="attachment_232638" align="aligncenter" width="630"] Picture: Eugene Coetzee[/caption]

Le Roux said the shoppers, many of whom appeared to have unpaid-for goods still in their hands, had then panicked further when it was discovered that both the customers’ entrance and another entrance at the back were locked.

“It was crazy. There were shoppers, including a huge guy in front of me, trying to pull and force the door open.

“The big guy was being helped by people on the outside of the shop trying to get the door open. “It was really scary.”

Le Roux said she had been relieved when the door was eventually forced open and the customers rushed out.

“I really can’t understand how a store can possibly lock its doors in an emergency situation like that,” she said.

“What would have happened if the fire was inside the shop?”

Staff outside the store, which ironically was advertising its goods with signs reading “Hot looks at hotter prices”, would not speak to The Herald.

Telephone calls to the store also went unanswered.

Jusuf Jooma, of neighbouring electronics and clothing store Jooma’s, said he was relived his store had not caught on fire.

“People from surrounding businesses and even an ambulance that was passing by r ushed to help with fire extinguishers. “There were between 10 and 15 of them,” he said, adding that he believed some people had taken advantage of the situation and had stolen from the store.

[caption id="attachment_232639" align="aligncenter" width="630"] Picture: Eugene Coetzee[/caption]

Bo Liu, the owner of Essential Lady’s World, said she had not been at the store when the blast occurred but had rushed there having heard talk of a bomb.

“I am very relived everything is OK. “It would have been devastating to have the business burn down at this time of year,” she said.

Port Elizabeth police spokesman Warrant Officer Alwin Labans said both members of Greenacres Business Watch and Gardmed Ambulance services had responded when they heard the explosion and had assisted to contain the flames before firefighters from the Sidwell fire station arrived.

Labans, who confirmed that no injuries had been re - ported in the incident, also confirmed that the bitumen drum, according to the firefighters, had been the probable cause of the explosion and subsequent fire.