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Pinetown - Investigators believe that the fire which razed a Metrofile storage warehouse in Westmead on Saturday, consuming millions of critical records, could have been started on purpose.
The blaze became an inferno soon after it started on Friday night and was still being extinguished last night. It gutted the massive storage facility, with tons of original documents fuelling the fire.
Millions of government, bank and private documents went up in smoke.
A source tasked with investigating confirmed that arson was suspected. He said a preliminary examination pointed to sabotage.
The JSE-listed Metrofile company stores more than 21 billion records across the country, and millions were lost in this fire, the second at the facility in six years.
Damage amounted to millions of rand, but the real cost will be felt by its clients who will have to reconstruct archives and files, a process which will take years.
Among these clients are some of the major banks, insurance providers and a number of government departments.
The source said: “I have seen many fires and can readily tell you when it’s an accident. I came here, took one look and I knew someone started this. It’s arson,” he said.
The source said that with storage facilities such as Metrofile, many fire-protection measures would need to be circumvented, making an accident unlikely.
“In places like this, fire safety is a priority. All checks and balances are exhausted because a lot is at stake. Why did it happen after hours and why on a Friday when no one is here to raise the alarm? Clearly someone has a lot to lose or gain,” he said.
When the Sunday Tribune arrived on Saturday morning, there were still flames inside the facility.
Melted iron bars, shelves, metal sheets and smouldering fibreglass bore testimony to the damage. Mounds of paper were ablaze.
“The fire is contained, but not extinguished, we are going to battle with it for the next four to five days,” said Roger Jones, an eThekwini Fire divisional commander.
Firefighters had started fighting the blaze an hour after it had started.
He would not be drawn on what caused the fire. He said their main worry was that the flames didn’t leap from the southern shed where the fire started to the northern one.
Metrofile chief executive Graham Wackrill said that while the cause of the fire remained undetermined, their investigation would explore all avenues.
“Everything is under control and we have launched a full-scale investigation. We have initiated all our disaster recovery measures and that is all we have to say,” he said.
When confronted with suggestions that the fire had been set intentionally, he said: “We are keeping an open mind and will investigate that. That is not our official statement at this time,” he added.
Guy Kimble, managing director of Metrofile Records Management, would not comment in detail, but a statement issued in his name on Saturday alluded to the fact that millions of critical files had been lost for good because making electronic back-ups were an optional extra for clients.
“As per worldwide industry best practice, we are not required to image all archive documents kept in physical form, due to sheer volume. It is an optional service and those clients who opted for this service would have back-ups.
“While we cannot determine the number of clients that may be affected, fortunately, the fire was restricted to a secondary warehouse, with the two other warehouses at the KZN facility being unaffected. We would also like to point out that the affected warehouse is only one of many storage facilities that Metrofile has around the country,” Kimble said.
According to Metrofile’s website, the building razed by the fire was the main base of operations in the province, and offered image processing, data back-up and archive storage.
SA Homeloans marketing manager Michelle Bovet confirmed that they had contracted Metrofile to archive documents.
“We have stored client correspondence with Metrofile dating back longer than two years, but luckily we have electronic back-ups, all our title deeds and other critical documents are stored elsewhere,” she said.
People have reacted with alarm at the news of the fire. “Wow, that’ s terrible,” a lawyer said. “They keep a lot of important documents for the banks, insurance companies and home loan outfits.”
A staff member said the facility housed 80 percent of preserved documents in KZN.
Some of the documents strewn along Cubhouse Place seen by the Tribune on Saturday include SAPS and Sassa documents, certified ID copies, original bank slips (Absa and Standard Bank) government documents from the Department of Agriculture, salary information, payslip duplicates and insurance documents.