Johannesburg - Standing underneath thousands of tons of twisted metal and concrete, Peter* fearlessly dug his hands in, rummaging through the rubble to make a quick buck.
He was just one of about 15 scrap-metal thieves who arrived at the collapsed Orlando Power Station on Thursday morning, 24 hours after it collapsed on to alleged metal thieves, killing one of them.
This despite rescue workers having aborted a bid to rescue the trapped body at 4am until specialised equipment was brought in as there were fears the building could cave in further.
By the time the police’s K9 unit arrived on the scene at 9am to locate the dead man’s body and any other bodies that could still be trapped underneath the rubble with sniffer dogs, the metal thieves were hard at work, trying to collect whatever metal they could exchange for cash.
They said they earned between R200 and R500 a day depending on how much they could get and what type of metal it was.
“This side is too strong,” Peter said, explaining he didn’t think it would collapse further.
“The other side we’re afraid of,” another man added.
From a vantage point, The Star team could see the thieves rummaging for metal as high as two storeys up.
They crouch and climb through small holes and caves created by the destroyed structure, looking for bits of metal.
“We’re not scared, things are fine,” said Peter, who moments before was looking for scrap metal under a slab of slanted concrete and a bent steel pillar.
Although the police only arrived at 9am, some metal collectors were staying away, fearing arrest.
A third man said: “There’s many more (metal collectors) coming, they’re just scared of the police right now.”
But those at the scene earlier had to contend with security guards responsible for guarding the substation next door. The guards rounded them up, warning them to stay away.
“I’ll command once or we’ll arrest you,” said security supervisor Patrick Mabuza.
They were then led away from the building in single file but a handful of the men broke free and sprinted off into the veld.
As they ran, a group of construction workers on the roof of a nearby building whistled and cheered to see them disappeared into the grass.
“These people are so stubborn, they can see it’s not safe,” Mabuza said.
Security guard Ndidzulafhi Mukwevho, who was the first to report the collapse to the authorities, said this group of men weren’t the first to return to the rubble.
“Less than an hour after it collapsed yesterday, they were here,” he said.
“These guys, they don’t care, they need the money,” he said.
Security guards said two vehicles belonging to scrap-metal thieves had been crushed in the collapse, but this could not be independently verified at the time of publication.
Johannesburg Emergency Services spokeswoman Nana Radebe said rescuers had to stop trying to retrieve a body trapped underneath the rubble after the rescue effort proved too dangerous.
Although the team saw the body on Wednesday while rescuing people who were injured, they had to take a decision not to retrieve it due to fears that doing so might result in the building further caving in.
Specialised equipment was to be used on Thursday morning and the police sniffer dogs would help determine if there were any more bodies trapped, she said.
Five people were rescued on Wednesday, including a 34-year-old man whose hand had to be amputated at the scene.
Radebe said one of the beams had fallen on the man’s hand and they had to call doctors to operate on him before they could take him out of the building.
That was not easy since they had to use specialised equipment, she said.
“We spent five hours removing the rubble so that doctors could get to him. There was a beam in the way and moving it would have made the structure collapse.
“In the meantime, paramedics stabilised him and gave him blankets to prevent hypothermia and his body going into shock. The two doctors were finally able to go in and amputate his left hand,” Radebe said.
The operations, which involved 40 people, started at about 8am on Wednesday and ended at 4am on Thursday.