Some people watch from the rooftops, others from the pavement as firefighters attend to flames licking Alexandra Court in central Durban. Pictures: JACQUES NAUDE

Durban -

A fire that gutted part of a building in central Durban was believed to have its source in burning cooking oil left on a frying pan, according to residents.

One person suffered second-degree burns and is in a stable condition.

Mostly foreigners from elsewhere in Africa, they stood on the pavement staring at a firefighter spraying water through a hose into a third-storey window wondering if their own possessions were safe.

“It happened between 8am and 9am,” Joline Palmer told The Independent on Saturday.

“I was going to spill (throw some water down a sink) water when I saw everybody coming out of the building.

“I was told to go out, not to take anything from my room. That’s how bad the smoke was.”

She ended up leaving it unlocked.

Palmer said she had been trying to send messages to her work but could not get through.

Other residents of Alexandra Court said they received messages while at work and came straight home.

Stephen Smart, who hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that when he eventually went into his room, all his possessions were burnt.

“My fridge, my television, small (amounts of) money.

“I will have to ask friends if I can sleep at their place.”

All Victor Nshimilanami owned was in his small backpack, he said. This included his work uniform.

“I helped try to put out the fire until the fire department arrived,” he added.

Nolitha Sehole, supervisor of the building in Alexandra Street, just off Anton Lembede (Smith) Street, close to Albert Park, said she heard the “beep, beep” of smoke detectors.

“I thought it was a pot. Then in no time the smoke came. I heard that someone was cooking and the oil caught fire.”

She said the building had 78 rooms.

Palmer said she shared hers with three others and they paid a monthly rent of R1 250.

There were no kitchen facilities.

“People cook in their rooms.”

She estimated that between 100 and 200 people lived in the building.

Acting Divisional Commissioner at Durban Central Fire Station, Justin Bateman, said the fire took half an hour to extinguish.

He said it appeared to have started in a cubicle that had been created by a sub-division in a room.

“The third floor was completely gutted,” said Bateman.

“The City Engineer has been to check if it was structurally sound. There was also fire damage from the firefighting and the age of the building on the other floors.”

He said the injured man was taken to Addington Hospital.

The blaze attracted the attention of many people in the streets.

Some watched from the rooftop of a neighbouring building.

Students from ICESA Education, a tertiary college across the road, came out of class to watch the action.

The owner, known to residents only as “Ali”, could not be reached for comment.