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Inquiry hears why gaining access into Usindiso was difficult on day of fire

Acting Joburg EMS chief Rapulane Monageng testifies on first day of commission of inquiry into CBD fire which killed 77 on August 31

Retired judge Sisi Khampepe with one of the commissioners, advocate Thulani Makhubela. File photo.
Retired judge Sisi Khampepe with one of the commissioners, advocate Thulani Makhubela. File photo.
Image: Antonio Muchave

Only one door at the now-gutted Usindiso building could be used to gain access to the hijacked building, as the remaining routes were either blocked or sealed off using a variety of unsuitable materials.

The building also had no fire extinguishers or fire hoses. Even some of the staircases were blocked and converted into makeshift rooms.

This was revealed by acting Johannesburg emergency management services (EMS) chief Rapulane Monageng on the first day of the commission of inquiry into the fire which led to the deaths of 77 people on August 31.

The tragedy drew international attention and brought the problem of hijacked buildings in the inner city into focus.

The inquiry is chaired by retired judge Sisi Khampepe. Advocate Thulani Makhubela and Vuyelwa Mathilda Mabena are assisting Khampepe.

Part A of the inquiry will focus on the circumstances that led to the fire and the person who should be held accountable. Part B will look into the prevalence of hijacked buildings in the Johannesburg inner city. 

The building, on the corner Delvers and Albert streets, was owned by the City of Johannesburg and served as a shelter for abused women and children. However, the building was taken over by illegal landlords who charged residents more than R1,000 a month for accommodation, with no basic services. 

Monageng was the first person to testify before the commission. He spent a large part of his testimony detailing the conditions that officials who inspected the building after the fire found during their visit.

This was displayed through a series of images, 71 in total, that Monageng used to provide visual details of the building's interior. His testimony was led by evidence leader advocate Ishmael Semenya.

He confirmed that the front of the building had been sealed off with a brick wall since the fire. It has been declared unsafe.

Turning to the interior, Monageng told the commission they discovered that all but one door had remained accessible to residents, and later firefighters tasked with putting out the fire, on a day-to-day basis as well as for evacuations during an emergency.

During the firefighting or fire incident, all members of the building were forced to use [an 80cm] door to evacuate. This is not up to South African standards, as I said earlier on ... [an] emergency door was closed off and this [door gave daily] access to the building, which compromised, in our own understanding, the evacuation of the building in total
Acting EMS chief Rapulane Monageng

“During the firefighting or fire incident, all members of the building were forced to use [an 80cm] door to evacuate. This is not up to South African standards, as I said earlier on ... [an] emergency door was closed off and this [door gave daily] access to the building, which compromised, in our own understanding, the evacuation of the building in total,” he said.

The remaining emergency routes and rooms were either boarded up or closed off using makeshift burglar doors or wooden cardboards. The latter were salvaged from the back of the building, along with plastic, where residents got material to construct rooms or partition them.

Even the emergency door leading to the building's courtyard on the fourth floor was closed by a chained “heavy steel security gate”. Firefighters had to use a universal key to force access.

“We don't condone this, it's unacceptable to close off emergency doors with locks and chains which are not according to standard. To make things worse, during [the breaking down of the gate], no one could assist us to gain access to the building itself,” he said.

The images Monageng shared painted a picture of life inside Usindiso, showing how residents used makeshift steel burglar doors throughout the building and which made the rescue operation difficult on the morning of the fire as many couldn't leave their rooms. Many also used corroded paraffin stoves, which pose a fire hazard as they were more likely to collapse or fall over.

They also couldn't move up and down the building as the staircase was turned into makeshift rooms at various points.

Portable fire extinguishers were absent, fire hoses were either removed or converted for domestic use, and firefighters had to rely on their own equipment to put out the fire.

Monageng also detailed the response to the fire and the challenge faced by firefighters years before the fire in ensuring the building complied with safety standards.

The inquiry continues.

TimesLIVE

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