Durban - Three young children were rescued from a burning flat in Durban on Monday before the blaze engulfed two floors of the city building.
A neighbour who tried to help the family by braving the flames to retrieve their identity documents had to save himself when the floor crumbled beneath his feet and he fell into the flat below.
By chance, his fall was broken when he fell onto a bed.
The drama unfolded in Bertha Mkhize (Victoria) Street in a building next to the Victoria Fish Market that is marked as a backpackers lodge.
Two brothers, identified as Sfiso and Sphiwo Nsele, were in their first floor flat when they heard screams coming from the flat above, where the children live with their mother and grandmother.
Sfiso said he saw smoke when he went out.
“I ran downstairs to get a hosepipe but when I went back up, I saw the fire was too powerful,” he said.
He said he heard the children screaming and crying and then saw them struggling to get down the stairs.
The stairs are set wide apart and very steep, causing the family to struggle down the stairs.
“Their mother was ahead of them with the baby in her arms.”
Sfiso said he dropped the hosepipe and grabbed the other two children, both toddlers. They were crying as the fire burned behind them and smoke filled the stairwell.
After leaving them outside, he said their mother “just disappeared”.
He went back inside and found Sphiwo trying to get into the burning flat to recover the family’s identity documents.
But before he could step inside, the floor crumbled beneath his feet.
He fell on to the bed inside the flat, sustaining a minor injury to his stomach.
Paramedics attended to Sphiwo at the scene and he was taken to hospital.
He was released after being treated.
The division commander of the Durban fire department, Melvin Ramlall, described the building as “bad”, saying a structural engineer had been called in to assess it.
The building was then shut down.
Speaking to the Daily News at the scene, Ramlall said the fire was confined to the residential quarters on the first and second floors.
The building has three floors. While a sign at the front of the building indicates it is a backpackers lodge, an occupant said he and others paid rent of R800 a month and were permanent residents.
The fire also burned through the roof causing extensive damage.
About 20 firefighters used four fire engines, a water tanker and a hydraulic lift to extinguish the blaze. Ambulances and police search and rescue officers were on standby but there were no injuries or entrapments.
Ramlall could not confirm that the fire had started in the flat where the rescued children live, or a claim that a two-plate stove was the cause.
A tenant in one of the shops on the ground floor said one of his salon employees had seen the smoke and alerted others.
He had carried his salon equipment on to the street with the help of two employees.
However, the fire had not affect the shops, he said. Some residents said they had spotted the owner of the building at the scene.
However, he reportedly claimed he was in Johannesburg when police and firefighters contacted him.