Durban - A brave neighbour who stormed into a blazing house - twice - to save two children trapped inside says they were seconds away from being burnt alive.
Ralph Kannemeyer, 44, of Weylen Close, Phoenix, was in his lounge about to watch the World Cup late on Wednesday night when he heard their mother’s cry for help.
The father of three, who has been hailed a hero, put his life on the line to rescue the Brijmohun siblings - Riley, 4, and her brother Riadlen, 5, from certain death.
After fighting his way through a blocked door, he found Riadlen slouched in the corner of the flaming upstairs bedroom, lying on top of his unconscious sister.
“It was as though he was protecting his sister from the fire,” a shocked Kannemeyer told the Daily News on Thursday.
The children’s mother, Saliha Brijmohun, 28, managed to escape the blaze with her 3-month-old baby and raised the alarm.
A single mother of three who lives with her mother and siblings, she broke down in tears on Thursday, describing how her children, who suffered second degree burns, narrowly escaped death.
“We don’t have lights at home so I had the candle lit. The children were just about to fall asleep when the candle fell into the bin packet, which was next to it.
“Within seconds the packet caught alight and spread on to the mattress and clothes lying around in the room. I grabbed my 3-month-old child and ran downstairs screaming for help,” she said.
Kannemeyer said he heard cries of “help, help” and initially thought it was a robbery.
He rushed outside and saw Brijmohun screaming: “The house is on fire - my children are burning.”
He ran up the stairs to the front of the house. By then, he said, Saliha, her brother, Shakeer, and the grandmother, Shreen, were on the roadside.
Kannemeyer did not hesitate and kicked the front door and made his way through the dark house - choking from fumes and blinded by the smoke.
“As I entered the house there was smoke everywhere. I couldn’t breathe and there was total darkness. I rushed up the staircase but the smoke was so overwhelming I had to run back out for some air.
“I took a few deep breaths and rushed back in. Everyone was getting frantic and I knew I had to get out whoever was inside. I ran back up the staircase and got to the bedroom which was already engulfed in flames.”
While Kannemeyer was in the house the neighbours had rallied and attached two hosepipes to their outside washbasins.
They passed the hosepipes to Shakeer Brijmohun, who had already climbed halfway up the outside of the building. He began shoving the hosepipes through the windows, which were exploding from the heat, to help Kannemeyer.
Meanwhile, Kannemeyer had encountered a massive problem inside. The bedroom door was blocked by a burning mattress.
“I could not believe it when the door wasn’t opening. I could hear faint cries coming from inside. I began breaking the door down by continuously kicking and shoulder charging it,” he said.
“I managed to get in and saw Riadlen lying on the floor. He was slouched in a corner of the room surrounded by burning clothes and mattresses. When I picked him up I got a shock when I saw Riley lying beneath him,” said Kannemeyer. “Riley’s face, hair and back were already burnt.”
He said he carried Riadlen out to safety and then hurried back up to fetch Riley, who was unconscious.
“By the time I got back up the flames were unbearable. I thought this is it now. Riley was seconds away from being burnt alive.
“I wasn’t even thinking about myself. Fortunately the hosepipes were shoved through the window upstairs, so I grabbed it and entered the room. I stood on the burning bed and began hosing the room. I jumped over, grabbed Riley with one hand and kept hosing the fire with the other,” he said.
A next-door neighbour, who did not want to be named, said that as the children were brought out the house a large group had gathered in shock. She brought her car and they rushed the children to a nearby clinic.
“As we drove to the clinic the children were screaming. They were in agony. Their clothes were wet from the hosing and they were shivering. We threw a blanket on them and kept comforting them. You could get the smell of burnt flesh in the car,” she said.
The neighbour said the children were stabilised at the clinic and referred to Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital. They rushed the children to the hospital.
“They kept asking for Coke and sweets as we were driving them to the hospital. I managed to pour some Coke into a syringe which we fed them with. I kept comforting them to keep them responsive,” said the neighbour.
Kannemeyer, who works as a manager for Technostar, an auto body repair centre, said he did not see his actions as heroic, saying he had reacted instinctively.
He said he felt emotional when he thought of how Riley and Riadlen would always run to greet him when he returned from work.
“It struck me in my heart and I knew I had to do something.
“I see these kids every day and they run to my car and say: ‘Uncle Ralph, Uncle Ralph, what a nice car you have today.’ It was an honour for me to save them. All the neighbours should be praised for their efforts.”
When asked if he sustained any injuries or had been to a doctor for smoke inhalation, Kannemeyer said with a huge grin: “Besides my takkies and pants getting burnt, I had an ice cold glass of milk which revitalised me.”
The Darul Ihsan Centre, a non-profit welfare group, would try to assist the family, said spokesperson, Moulana Ahmed Kathrada. “Groceries and clothing will be provided. We will even look into re-housing them if we can.”