A 21-year-old film student has emerged as the heroine of an apparent petrol-bomb attack on an Observatory nightclub, saving four cleaners from an almost certain fiery death inside after they were bound and held hostage by armed robbers.
The woman, who said she was terrified of being named amidst rumours of the attack being linked to underworld activity, described how she alerted the police, warning them to “send everyone and everything they could send”. She then braved thick smoke to respond to panicked cries of “help us” and “get a knife” coming from the workers through the floorboards, to rescue them.
“There was smoke billowing through the floor boards and it was busy filling up quickly. I knew I had to get out … That’s when I heard the panicked voices.”
The student was working in an office on the floor above the Barmooda nightclub on the corner of Lower Main and Station roads at the time. She realised something was wrong when she heard a loud bang at about 2.30am yesterday.
“It sounded like a truck had hit the building. I was very confused and panicked. But I immediately called the police.”
In spite of being afraid for her own safety, and without a clue as to what was going on downstairs, the young woman went back upstairs, got a knife, then descended the stairs with only the light from her cellphone to guide her in the choking smoke.
“Luckily I found the people, their hands tied behind their backs with cable ties.
“I was worried. I could not see their faces. I think it was three men and a woman who were locked in. I never even saw their faces, there was smoke everywhere and it was hard to breathe,” she said.
Keeping her wits about her, the young woman said she was conscious that she didn’t know who they were, or what they would do to her if she cut them loose. But she decided to help them get outside.
Two of the men managed to force open the side gate leading to the street.
“When I went outside I saw my brother, and that was the last I saw of the people I’d rescued,” said the courageous woman.
She told Weekend Argus that she was working on a movie at the time – and within a split second her life turned into a movie.
“It was just unreal, I was freaking out and the harsh reality of what would have happened to those people is yet to sink in.”
She explained that they had escaped the blaze through the side exit between Barmooda and Trenchtown.
According to police, two unidentified men entered the club with firearms and held the four cleaners hostage.
“The suspects pointed firearms at them, handcuffed them and took them to the back of the building. The cleaners were robbed of their cellphones and personal belongings,” spokesman Captain FC van Wyk said.
Police believe petrol bombs were used to set the nightclub alight.
According to Van Wyk, the four cleaners were safe but traumatised.
“An arson case was registered for investigation. No arrests have yet been made,” he said last night.
At the scene yesterday, Hout Bay’s Sally Mellish, who owns a photographic studio above the club, said she received a call in the early hours yesterday that the place was in flames.
“I lost everything in that fire. My equipment, everything I owned was in there. I could not afford insurance. This is a big mess,” she said.
Barmooda owner Reon Heckrath was briefly at the scene yesterday, in tears and talking to police, but he left without speaking to the media.
The club’s website carried this stark message: “Barmooda was set alight tonight and burnt down and there’s nothing left. Staff were hurt and it’s an emotional time for the Barmooda family. We appreciate words of support and good wishes. And please take into consideration some people were hurt tonight. The owner apologises for any inconvenience caused with regards to bookings and events. We will be closed until further.”
The owner of the building, Zhaun Amid-Ahmed, told Weekend Argus police had told him the people allegedly responsible for the petrol bomb were still on the scene when police arrived.
“Police chased them as far as Maitland, but they all got away. But police found their car,” he said, adding that the investigation was continuing.
Bystanders and residents described the nightclub as a “problematic establishment”, responsible for much unhappiness in the area.
“Gangs and drugs. That’s what was going on there. Judging from what happened and the people who hung out there, it’s no surprise that this happened,” one said.
James Cowley, of the Observatory Neighbourhood Watch, said their activism against the nightclub was no secret in the area.
“The biggest problem was the noise disturbance. It’s been bad and sad, but it’s even sadder and unacceptable what has happened here now.”