Three firefighters die in high-rise disaster

Emergency services personnel assist a woman after a fire broke out in a Johannesburg building that houses government offices
Emergency services personnel assist a woman after a fire broke out in a Johannesburg building that houses government offices

“We just ran. We left everything behind. We ran from the building as a group.”

A terrified Johannesburg government worker has described the fear she and her colleagues experienced when their offices on the 23rd floor of the Bank of Lisbon building – which houses the departments of health‚ human settlements, and co-operative governance and traditional affairs – caught alight on Wednesday.

Three firefighters died in the blaze, which engulfed the top of the building.

One of the firefighters fell to his death and two others were found inside the building in Sauer Street. The financial clerk‚ who cannot be named because she was not authorised to talk to the media‚ said the employees inside had all run for their lives.

“No-one knew what was happening. It was terrifying.”

Firefighters and civilians were still trapped on a tiny ledge outside the building late on Wednesday night‚ with some civilians trapped on the roof.

Attempts to rescue them, including with a helicopter, were unsuccessful.

A young couple sharing their happy snaps with their two children: That’s the memory shared by a woman who saw her life torn apart when her firefighter husband lost his life in Johannesburg’s city centre on Wednesday.

Altogether three firefighters died in the blaze that engulfed the building on Wednesday, and while they have not been officially named as yet, Yuri Tseke shared her heartbreak publicly.

“#JoburgFire today I lost my husband, my best friend, father to my children. I love u so much.”

Johannesburg mayoral committee member for public safety Michael Sun said the fire had been put out‚ but the area remained cordoned off.

A health department employee said he had been in his office when he heard an explosion. He then heard people screaming‚ “Fire! Fire!“

“I ran out of my office into the passage. People were trying to go down the lifts while others were running down the stairs to try to escape.

“I ran down the stairs as fast I could. When I got outside, the building was covered in thick black smoke.”

The man said he was worried about his colleagues as no staff counts had been done.

“No-one knows who is missing, it’s total confusion.”

Mandla Ngcobo, who was standing outside the building when the fireman plunged to his death from the burning building‚ described what happened in the seconds leading up to the tragic incident.

“He was trying to break the window,” Ngcobo said.

“He went first‚ and then he went for the second time and then the window fell out with him.”

Ngcobo said it appeared that the firefighter had tried to use his body weight to break the window to get to a ledge outside.

“I think he went with the elbow first time‚ and then he went for the second time‚ [then] he went full force with his body‚” he said.

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said he would be visiting the families of the dead firefighters on Thursday.

He pledged that the city would do everything it could to assist the families.

“Our firefighters in Johannesburg regularly have to face life-threatening situations‚ and continue to demonstrate their bravery in their efforts to keep our residents safe‚” he said.

“The efforts to put out the blaze were hampered by a lack of sufficient water pressure in the building‚ which is an important safety requirement.

“It is reported that several government officials who evacuated the building have referred to unsafe conditions in the offices.

“We regard these matters very seriously‚ given that this fire has led to the tragic loss of life of three brave firefighters.”

Gauteng infrastructure MEC Jacob Mamabolo said earlier that the government building was not up to code.

According to Mamabolo‚ the provincial government received a report on August 27 which indicated that eight government-owned buildings were non-compliant with safety and health standards.

This included the building where the fire broke out.

Provincial government spokesperson Thabo Masebe said the building had been shut down to allow the cause of the fire to be investigated.

Gauteng premier David Makhura said a government employee who was in the room where the fire broke out might have the answer, and the police would be interviewing that person. - TimesLIVE