Hawks lead investigation into fire which 'almost destroyed' Parliament, man quizzed over blaze
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Cape Town - President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday that a man had been taken in for questioning as investigations into a fire which almost destroyed Parliament began.
“While they have worked to stop Parliament from being razed to ashes, it is very clear that this fire has devastated the parliamentary precinct and its contents and assets, including Parliament’s historical treasures of heritage,” Ramaphosa said.
He was on the scene with other parliamentary officials including Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille and House chairperson Cedric Frolick hours after the fire started in the Old Assembly, spread to the National Assembly and left a trail of destruction in its wake.
The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) is located in what is called the Old Wing or Old Assembly.
De Lille said the Hawks was investigating the fire after police confirmed that a 49-year-old man had been arrested inside Parliament and had since been handed over to the police’s elite crime-fighting unit.
She also confirmed that one of the valves of the fire sprinklers was closed.
“There was a fire drill just before Parliament closed which is a standard procedure, to test whether the fire sprinklers are working, and they did the drill and everything was in order. What was discovered this morning is that somebody has closed off one of the valves and so there was no water to trigger the automatic sprinkler system because it was closed,” De Lille said.
Parliament’s presiding officers last night said plans for the State of the Nation Address and the Budget Speech would go ahead, although they did not indicate whether these would happen within the parliamentary precinct.
Mayco member for safety and security JP Smith said the Old Assembly was gutted and the roof of that building had collapsed.
“The entire parliamentary complex is severely damaged, waterlogged and smoke-damaged. The roof above the Old Assembly hall is completely gone, the offices adjacent to it and the gym are destroyed.
“The second point of fire was the National Assembly which was gutted, the structural ceiling collapsed and the fire staff had to be temporarily withdrawn,” Smith said.
“Firefighters confirmed that they were on scene for some time before the fire system first triggered and then sounded the alert, so it does appear that the system was somewhat delayed,” Smith said.
City Fire and Rescue Services said about 70 firefighters staff and 12 firefighting appliances were on the scene of the fire that started around 5am.
As the smoke billowed from the National Assembly during the course of the day, firefighters faced the blaze head-on by using two jets inside the National Assembly as the ceiling collapsed.
No injuries were reported. In March last year, a fire took place at the Old Assembly building where several upper floor offices and committee rooms were damaged.
“This is a far more destructive fire and it’s of concern that we are seeing multiple of these incidents, which does mean a review of the fire safety systems need to be conducted,” Smith said.
Smith provided an update at 6:50am on Monday morning stating that firefighters were attending to hotspots on the 4th floor of the National Assembly which is still smouldering as there is “lots of books and bookshelves smouldering”.
He said that one crew was there damping down, and that certain sections are still hot because heat was trapped, so they are currently ventilating building.
“Rest of building is under control, and two fire engines with 10 firefighters on scene.”
He said they hope to finalize and withdraw from Parliament within next 2 to 3 hours.
He added that they are waiting on structural engineers from Parliament and also forensic investigators.
Frolick said: “The area where the fire spread through is where the ANC members of Parliament have their offices and those offices look as if they will not be usable.
“We do not have any reason to believe the fire has destroyed certain documents. There is enough room for safekeeping of confidential documents in the precinct.”
Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli said: “We don’t have words to describe our outrage. People are rightfully angry to ask how this was allowed to happen. Whoever did this was out of order.”
The portfolio committee on public works and infrastructure called for calm and for the public to avoid speculation on the fire.
Committee chairperson Nolitha Ntobongwana said: “Let us ensure that we provide all the support we can offer to ensure that the adjacent buildings such as Tuynhuis, where the Presidency has its Cape Town offices, remain protected.”
The committee said it would ensure that a formal investigation into the cause of the fire was undertaken speedily.
Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis also offered the Council Chambers to Speaker of Parliament Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula following the fire at Parliament on Sunday.
Hill-Lewis said on Sunday: “The devastating fire at Parliament today is a national tragedy. Cape Town is also the historic seat of Parliament, and so we share in the sense of tragedy felt by so many at this time.
“While the full scale of the damage is being assessed, the City of Cape Town stands ready to do whatever it can to help.
“I have been in contact with the Speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, to offer our immediate assistance so that the work of Parliament can continue.
“Cape Town will make our Council Chamber available to the Speaker for sittings of the National Assembly, as well as the use of the Grand Parade and City Hall for the State of the Nation Address,” Hill-Lewis said.