l o a d i n g . . .
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‘The 4th September, I left for work… On Friday we went to the scene.’ In a radio interview on 702 with Azania Mosaka in November 2018, fireman Isaac Moleko Bereng recalled the traumatic sequence of the day that began in the morning with a call from the control room and ended in the death of his crew members, Simphiwe Moropane (28), Mduduzi Ndlovu(40) and Khathutshelo Muedi (37).21
Bereng described how on arriving at the scene, he and a female colleague were tasked to first prepare and then take additional firefighting equipment into the building, to assist the first team of firemen who had gone ahead. 2 fire engines were on the ground at this stage.22 ‘When we went in, we asked the security guards, which way must we go?’ They saw office workers leaving, some were walking. The fire alarm was not activated and it seemed unclear to employees as to what was going on. One worker said, ‘It may be a fire drill’, another stated, ‘It is burning upstairs’. Bereng and his partner finally found the building’s fire marshal and officers at the lift and were told that the 23rd floor was on fire. They were taken up, and again tried to get information on the situation. The answers were unclear, ‘Maybe it’s an electrical fault’.
When they reached the 23rd floor, the officials opened the automatic glass door to the HOD’s office where some smoke was coming from. They entered, turned right and saw flames ‘gulping’ from the roof. Bereng concluded that the floor above was burning. He looked for the fire hydrant – ‘I open the cabinet, I see there is hose reel, I open it, no water. Not a drop, you can hear when you open it, I hear nothing. It has been long since it has been used.’ He asked where the booster connection was, a point of attachment to increase pressure and provide additional water to a fire hydrant system in the event of an emergency. ‘They just keep quiet’. He searched on the wall, located a cabinet and finally the booster connection: ‘I open it before connecting. There is nothing’. They turned to the stairs and found the team and platoon commanders, ‘the late Nldovu and the late Moropane’, descending from the 24th floor. ‘I tell them, there is no water here.’ They inspected the flames, ‘After that, we hear the door closing.’ The fire marshal and officers had left. ‘After seconds, the whole place is black, flames all over. It’s a magnetic access door, so we were trapped in that section. Everyone was running to each room, we cannot see, we’re just calling by the names. The room is filled with black smoke, you cannot see nothing, not even when someone is close to you.’
‘But the flames are not there, they are above you’.
‘Yes, but now, remember, it is crossing. That side is a dead end. On the dead end the flames roll down, moving down. It seems like they were making circles… Mr Maumela was screaming, he was burning, he was burning. Already me, when that thing arrived, that black smoke, already I can feel that my hand cannot move, the left hand. We have gloves on. Intensive heat can penetrate through anything, because remember the only thing that fire is looking for is oxygen whilst it is circulating inside here. The heat is becoming intensive.’
Firefighters will read the colour, behaviour and density of smoke, to infer the amount of oxygen in the air, temperature and combustion - any signs of imminent risk. Dark smoke, essentially ‘soot and carbon’, signals incomplete combustion and hence lack of oxygen.23 In the smoke filled offices and corridors, as the heat became unbearable, the team could not find an exit.
‘So we try to run to other rooms. And then we start talking, while we start talking the other guy went out of the room, we don’t know who is that and then we said we stay here. If we die, we’re gonna die all of us, here as a team. Mr Muedi was suffering with his beard. From there he was telling us, let us move out of here, because I am struggling to breath. That is when Mahlaba screamed at me, that the late Muedi had collapsed. From there I told them, guys ok, I’m going to look for a way out. They said no stay, we must stay as a team but I said let me go to find a way out. Then I opened 3 doors, the 1st door I open, it was flames. The second door, there was no way out. I went out the 3rd door, that’s where I found blinds, once I touch them I could see the light’. He called the others. ‘Mr Muedi, we were dragging him… Moropane he was with us, but he was so quiet. I broke the window, I went out.’ When he stepped on the ledge, he heard the alarm on his breathing apparatus (BA), a warning that that air supply in the cylinder was dropping.
With the window broken, oxygen was rapidly pulled into the smoke filled, oxygen starved interior. This would cause combustion to restart, adding fuel to the fire and heating gasses to dangerous degrees, potentially causing them to instantaneously ignite.24 When Moropane wanted to step out of the window, he was caught in a back draft: ‘It is like an explosion... Before that, I said to Maumela, please tell the guys that something is coming … because I can hear inside that something is coming….It seemed it went through and up, hitting him like that.’ Simphiwe Moropane fell 23 floors.
For a while, the flames burned intensely from the window, ‘but we hang on to the side of it. The worry was for Mahlaba and Mahlati, ...already they were running when the backdraft hit, they were down.’ When they managed to step out onto the ledge, they tried to pull their collapsed colleague out. An air con unit was blocking the way, they tried to break it but failed, while flames kept flaring from the opening. ‘It is like someone is chasing us away. That’s how it is.’25
Bereng adds that they were misdirected to the 23rd floor, while it was the 24th floor that was really burning. ‘We fought fires, we see how they react, but if you look at the pattern, it was not the usual pattern’. The team was rescued from the ledge after 2 hours. He and another team member, Livhuwani Maumela, were taken to hospital for severe third degree burns and trauma. They only left the hospital 2 months later. Other firefighters and office workers were treated for smoke inhalation and injuries.26