Johannesburg - A blaze ripped out the heart of Platform Five in Joburg’s Jeppestown early on Sunday. But when the firefighters arrived, they needed police to protect them from a barrage of bricks and fury.
But they were too late. Three people were dead, burnt beyond recognition. Those who survived the inferno had lost everything – their shacks, their belongings and whatever cash they had saved.
About 2km away, another team of firefighters also faced the community’s wrath when their fire engine apparently ran out of water. They were nearly beaten up by residents, as the blaze continued unhindered.
One resident said that another engine dispatched to the scene broke down on arrival and a mechanic had to be called out to fix it.
The first fire broke out at about 1am at the George Goch informal settlement.
The water allegedly ran out while the firefighting teams were still putting out the fire.
A tanker later arrived, but residents said its water also ran out, leaving the firefighters at the mercy of the angry residents, who had to stand and watch their homes go up in flames as the fire spread.
The community accused the firefighters of being “useless” and for getting paid for doing nothing.
A resident is reported to have threatened firefighters with violence, saying that if he had had his gun with him, he would have shot them.
While the teams were still at George Goch, another fire broke out nearby at Platform Five.
Thobile Madlala, Ncamisile Mtshali and Bongiwe Bhengu said the fire started at about 3am.
The alarm was raised, but firefighting teams arrived only just before 6am, they claimed.
The women said a Mozambican couple died in the time they waited for help.
A third person – a man believed to be from Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, died in his shack. A fourth was hospitalised as the shacks were burning to the ground.
When the firefighters arrived, angry and frustrated residents were boiling with rage, the three Platform Five residents said.
They stoned the fire engine and threatened to hit the firefighters to force them to leave.
They came back with the police in tow. By then, there was nothing left of the shacks.
Madlala said the firefighters had failed them. “If they had arrived earlier, some shacks could have been saved,” she said.
As a chilly morning breeze swept through Platform Five, carrying with it soot from the burnt shacks, many people sat on the piles of the little belongings they had salvaged. Some children had no clothes or shoes, as their belongings had been destroyed.
Pupils said they had lost their books and uniforms in the flames.
Joburg Emergency Services spokeswoman Nana Radebe denied their teams had been late or that they had run out of water.
“There are no hydrants in George Goch as it is an informal settlement and when the water ran out, the firefighters had to go to replenish it,” she said.
Radebe said it was not true that the firefighters had arrived late at Platform Five. The fire department had received a call at about 5am and as all the nearby fire engines had already been dispatched to George Goch, they had to send one from Sandton, she said.
The fire engine came under attack, with residents throwing stones when it got to the scene. The firefighters went to Fairview police station to be escorted back.
But they did extinguish the fire, Radebe pointed out.
Madlala said a brazier might have started the Platform Five fire, which the injured men had left burning at night.
The cause of the fire at George Goch settlement was unknown, but Radebe said about 50 shacks burnt down at Platform Five. Residents put the figure at about 2 000.
Radebe added that the City of Joburg had two working tankers, while three were being repaired.