Fire destroys flats in building without extinguishers, or working hydrants

Residents of the building that caught fire say they have been asking the Department of Public Works to maintain it for years.
Rotting Residents of the building that caught fire say they have been asking the Department of Public Works to maintain it for years.
Image: Katharine Child

 A fire broke out gutting three flats on three separate floors of a Sophiatown residential apartment building on Saturday afternoon - and residents could not access fire extinguishers as the months-old housings to hold extinguishers were empty. 

Residents of the neglected, badly-maintained Herdeshof building for police personnel say the fire was not unexpected.  The building is visibly decaying. There are water leaks, broken windows and paint is blistering from ceilings saturated with damp.

Residents of the building say their complaints about the state of the building, owned by the department of public works, have fallen on deaf ears for years.

Westdene Sophiatown Residents Association chairperson Dauw Steen who arrived at the scene soon after fire broke out said he called the authorities to ask for fire engines and four were sent - two from Brixton and two from central Johannesburg. 

Steyn said firemen struggled to find a water source as the fire hydrant on nearby Gold street, and in the building were not working. He was told they had not been serviced.

Firemen eventually had to break a water pipe in the building's garden to access water supply to extinguish the blaze.

And while there are many newly-installed housings to hold fire extinguishers on each floor of Herdeshof, there is not a single extinguisher. The building has fire hoses, but no water supply or means to use the hoses. 

Apartment resident Jewano Brandt said that workmen had installed the housings to hold fire extinguishers, but they remained empty. He said the Herdeshof flats were known locally as the 'police flats'.

Residents were unsure what started the fire, although there was speculation that it could have been the result of an electrical fault, a faulty heater, or possibly children's horseplay with electrics. 

The building is no stranger to incidents caused by a lack of maintenance. On Christmas Eve in 2017, the Northcliff Melville Times reported, a six-year-old child fell down the lift shaft to her death when the lock mechanism on the doors of the lift failed.  The lifts in the 14-story building have been broken for years, Brandt said, as he pointed out the left where the tragedy took place. 

"We pay rent but the owner does nothing," said resident Tshepo Phoko. Phoko said that the once whites-only residential building became home to South Africans of all races after 1994, but that's when maintenance stopped being done.

"Ever since we came here, there is no maintenance. About 90% of people pay rent. Only some are here illegally. But the rent is for the owner to pay for maintenance. How can you raise a child here? You don’t feel safe here." He said there are often electrical problems in the building. It had taken "months" to have the leaking geyser in his flat fixed. 

The 'police flats' in Sophiatown where a fire gutted three apartments has housings for fire extinguishers, but no fire extinguishers. The building is owned by the Department of Public Works, say residents
Pointless The 'police flats' in Sophiatown where a fire gutted three apartments has housings for fire extinguishers, but no fire extinguishers. The building is owned by the Department of Public Works, say residents
Image: Katharine Child

Nearby Sophiatown resident Gregory Mattera said he complained about the building to the new police commander at Sophiatown but was told the department of public works is responsible for the apartment block, and that the police had no budget to fix the broken ceilings, windows and electrics. 

"There is nothing good here," said Westdene and Sophiatown Residents Association public safety portfolio manager Kobus Steyn. "This is a good example of people being forgotten by government."

Residents of the three apartments gutted by fire were not on the scene on Saturday afternoon and it is believed they had left by the time the fire was extinguished. 

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