Durban - A Durban fireman who fell six storeys down a dark lift shaft into a pile of burning rubbish and a dead body – during a rescue mission - is lucky to be alive.
Firefighter Malusi Mncube fell metres away from two metal spikes.
His breathing apparatus saved him from suffocating.
Earlier, a vagrant had fallen down the lift shaft at the Durban station.
When he fell, his friend lit a piece of paper so he could see down the shaft.
The paper fell, setting alight rubbish at the bottom of the shaft, and the smoke asphyxiated his friend, said EMS spokesman Robert McKenzie.
The smoke led to firefighters being called to the scene early on Wednesday morning.
A paramedic who was on the scene said there was only about 1m of concrete landing.
“Security guards warned us not to get too close so we had to lie down on our stomachs to peer down.”
Acting division commander at the Durban central fire station Max Magnussen said when they arrived the shaft was so dark that Mncube also fell down the well.
“That place is a death trap. Anyone can go up the stairs and there is only a small lip then nothing below that.”
The area was so dark that an extra generator-powered lighting unit had to be brought in.
Mncube plunged the 18m to the hellish bed of burning refuse narrowly missing two metal reinforcement bars at the bottom.
“It’s a miracle he was not impaled,” said Magnussen.
He said the fire was small but let off thick smoke.
Fortunately, Mncube already had his breathing apparatus on.
“He was able to breathe normally thanks to his apparatus and was responsive, using his flashlight,” said Magnussen.
An extra breathing tank had to be brought in from the station and lowered to Mncube.
The rest of the team watered the area down to suppress the smoke before proceeding with the rescue mission.
“The only one way in was to abseil from the top. It was dark, and the space confined and unsafe,” he said.
A firefighter scaled down the shaft on a rope harness.
Once at the bottom, the injured fireman was secured and pulled up.
He is in hospital being treated for minor internal bleeding on his arm and pain in his hip.
In an almost three-hour operation, the body of the vagrant was also hoisted up.
Apart from the smoke inhalation the man, thought to be in his late thirties, had suffered minor burns.
Police spokesman Thulani Zwane said an inquest had been opened and that the surviving vagrant had been questioned.
It is not clear what the two men were doing in the shaft, but a paramedic who was on the scene said the men seemed to have used the place to sleep.