Johannesburg - Riana Stalmeester’s three children and grandson slept as the flames engulfed their shack.
But Stalmeester, the sole breadwinner of the family, was discovered in the middle of the shack in what her relatives believe was a last heroic effort to save her family.
On Wednesday morning just before 3am, the family’s shack in Vlakfontein, Lenasia, was razed in a fire believed to have been caused by a heater.
The remains of Riana, her daughter Laverne Adams, her two sons Ashwin and Riaan Stalmeester, and Laverne’s son Gershwin Adams were found inside the shack.
Ashwin and Gershwin were both 9 years old, and Riaan was 14.
“They were very close, very close,” said Riana’s cousin Cecilia Fourie about the three boys.
“Riana was very friendly, she was always making jokes and was talkative.”
She said Laverne was just like her mother.
“They’ve got the same personality, the both of them.”
Another family member, Lorrain Laurie, said Laverne and Riaan were in their beds in one room, while Gershwin and Ashwin shared another room.
“It seems as though they could’ve been lying fast asleep,” Laurie said.
Riana was discovered in between the rooms. “Riana tried to help them, it’s so sad,” said Laurie.
A neighbour was shaking as he looked on at the people sifting through the shack’s burnt remains.
“I’m sleeping, there is a mother screaming,” said Joseph Tshabalala, recalling the tragedy. “I look out and see this fire. It was big.”
He said he and other neighbours tried to douse the flames with the little water they had and also tried to throw sand on to the fire.
At about 8am on Wednesday, relatives and neighbours were sifting through the charred remains of the shack, trying to salvage what they could of pictures and documents.
A handful of pictures survived the flames, including one of Ashwin and Gershwin standing close to each other, smiling.In another, Ashwin poses in front of a fridge.
Riana and Laverne are each seen in separate headshots, their family resemblance obvious.
One of the neighbours, a little girl dressed in a pink bathrobe and gum-boots, could not avert her gaze from the salvage mission, which continued through the morning.
“We’re just so shocked,” said another cousin, Nicoleen Human.
She said they were contacted early on Wednesday morning and had quickly travelled from Eldorado Park in southern Joburg. “When we got here, everything was already burnt,” Human said.
Riana had supported her family by doing domestic work and was the sole breadwinner.
EMS spokesman Robert Mulaudzi said the family were burnt beyond recognition.
He added that the cause of the blaze was still to be investigated but there were suspicions that it could have been started by a heater that had been left on.
EMS divisional chief of public education Synock Matobako said: “It is critical that people inspect their gas or electric heaters carefully before using them.
“If they (heaters) are faulty, rather throw them out instead of repairing them,” he said.
He also cautioned against buying heaters from “just anyone”.
“They should be purchased from reputable stockists and should be checked (to see) if they are SABS-approved. We are aware of some cheaper heaters being brought into the country which are not safety-approved,” he said.
Also, residents should never leave their heaters on when they go out.
“Many people want to come home to a warm house, but it is dangerous to leave any heater on unattended, even for a few minutes.”
A final tip for residents of informal settlements who use candles is for them to find an empty mayonnaise or jam jar, fill it with sand and put half a candle inside.
“The glass creates more light, and if the candle burns out, it will do so in the sand.
“In addition, if it is knocked over, the chances are that the sand will extinguish the flame,” he said.
Wrap up warmly from on Thursday night as temperatures are expected to drop below zero in some parts of Gauteng.
SA Weather Service forecaster Elizabeth Webster said that on Wednesday and on Thursday would be fine and sunny, but the cold front would start setting in late on Thursday afternoon.
Friday will be cold, but Saturday even colder with temperatures in Joburg expected to drop to 0ºC and Vereeniging to -5ºC.
The good news was that it should start warming by Sunday and gradually improve into next week, but highs would remain in the high teens, definitely not the 20s as we had been experiencing in the past few weeks, she said.