‘We lost everything and the people we love’: Residents of Joburg CBD building reeling after deadly fire

Iavan Pijoos Journalist
All that remained were ashes, burnt bed springs and appliances, corrugated iron sheets and memories of what many once used to call home.
All that remained were ashes, burnt bed springs and appliances, corrugated iron sheets and memories of what many once used to call home.
Image: Geoff Makhubo/Twitter

As hundreds of residents scrambled to gather what was left of their charred belongings after a fire ripped through a building in Johannesburg on Wednesday, the city said it would erect tents to provide temporary accommodation.

Johannesburg mayor Geoff Makhubo, who visited the displaced residents, said the city would also provide emergency care packages to affected families.

“Tents will be erected for the families over the next few days, while Johannesburg Social Housing Company SOC [Joshco] and the City of Joburg housing department await an assessment report.”

When TimesLIVE visited the scene on Wednesday, scores of people sat surrounded by ashes, looking hopeless. Others tried to salvage what was left of their belongings.

According to Makhubo the fire damaged 98 shacks.

Small children, some of them semi-clothed, watched as police officers combed the scene after the blaze.

Amid the ashes were burnt bed springs and appliances, corrugated iron sheets and memories of what many once called home. The building, three floors of which were filled with hundreds of shacks, caught fire in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Johannesburg emergency services spokesperson Nana Radebe said teams were alerted to the blaze at around 4am. The fire had started at ground level and spread rapidly. Nine people, including an infant, died while hundreds were left homeless.

About 20 people were transported to hospital after suffering burn wounds, while others broke their legs jumping from the building, Radebe said.

Nokulunga Msibi, who lived on the second floor, was asleep when the fire started.

“We heard voices and people were screaming: ‘Fire, fire, fire!’ It was around 3am and when I opened the door, the fire was already close to my shack. We took our clothes and ran down the stairs at the back of the building.

“I lost my bed, ID, food and bank cards,” she said.

Not only did Msibi lose her personal belongings, but she also lost her close friend, Mbali.

“She burnt to death. I saw her place burn to the ground. The people said they heard her screaming, but unfortunately there was nothing they could do because the fire was already at her door.

“She died crying. We were with her yesterday, but when death comes, there is nothing you can do.”

Msibi said Mbali, who she described as a good friend, was four months pregnant.

“I feel terrible because I lost someone I knew. Whenever I close my eyes I see her face.”

Phelelani Zulu, who works as a security guard in Germiston, said he lost everything in the blaze.
Phelelani Zulu, who works as a security guard in Germiston, said he lost everything in the blaze.
Image: Iavan Pijoos

Phelelani Zulu, a security guard who had lived there for two years, was at work when residents called him about the fire.

“I told them to fetch my clothes and they told me that the fire is out of control.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Zulu was gathering some of his burnt appliances and other scrap metal. “I lost everything. My ID, money and everything is lost. I am upset, because now I must start from the bottom again.”

MMC for housing Mlungisi Mabaso, who also visited the scene, said the building was owned by the city and there were plans to redevelop it.

Mabaso said during a visit to the building in November residents were told they would be relocated and the building demolished for redevelopment.

“I can confirm that when the city acquired the building, the building was already fully occupied and there were already shacks inside the building.

“The process to demolish and redevelop the building is still ongoing. What we are going to do today [Wednesday] as an intervention, is put everyone in a sporting facility not far from the building so that we are able to relocate and take everyone out, so that we leave the building unoccupied.

“We are going to put security in the area to ensure that no-one erects any illegal structures while we are in the process of demolition.”   

TimesLIVE

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