Cape Town - An elderly Cape Town woman was hailed as a hero on Wednesday for saving 14 children from a burning house. She even went back into the house for one of them.
Elizabeth Barrett, 68, could not save any of her belongings from the fire, which gutted a Victorian-era semi-detached house in Harrington Street.
She lost her ID and South African Social Security Agency cards in the fire.
When the fire started at 7.30am on Wednesday, Barrett was in the house with 14 children - six of them her grandchildren, five children from the streets, and three orphans sent to her from an orphanage to spend the holidays.
Her daughter Beatrice had been at work at the time.
Barrett said she had been preparing porridge in the kitchen when she smelt burning wires.
One of the children woke up and told her smoke was coming from a bedroom.
The child helped her push the bedroom door open.
“There was a lot of smoke in the room. Then the fire came up straight to my face. I said to the children, ‘you must wake the others and we must run’, because the fire was too strong.”
As the children ran out of the house Barrett counted them. One was missing.
“I saw that there were 13 children and they are supposed to be 14.
“I ran (back into the house) upstairs and I screamed, ‘Who is upstairs? Is anybody upstairs?’
“I saw one of the boys, he was under the bed next to the room where the fire was.
“I pulled him out underneath, but it was so dark from the smoke. It was black smoke all over the house.”
Barrett, Beatrice and the children found shelter at a workshop next to the house.
“Everything was burnt out. All the clothes and furniture are gone. We couldn’t save any belongings,” she said.
“All I could save was the children.
“The fire was too strong. You know, bamboo burns quickly and there’s a lot of black smoke that comes from it.”
Barrett, who has lived in the house for more than 30 years, said she had been taking in children from the streets for years. She takes them off the streets, clothes them and puts them through school.
She receives government social grants for one of her grandchildren and an old-age pension. The family’s other source of income is Beatrice’s salary.
Barrett said she had to send three children back to an orphanage in Durbanville as there would not be enough room for all of them.
Some good Samaritans had already donated old clothing, mattresses and food to the family.
Inside the house the smell of ash lingered in the air, the charred remains of sofas and doors were on the waterlogged floor, water dripped from the ceiling and the roof had caved in.
A neighbour said they had had seen the smoke and called the fire brigade. He said the fire had been strong.