Johannesburg - About 15 people were believed to be fighting for their lives under piles of heavy metal and rubble late on Wednesday night after an old power station building collapsed in Soweto.
By 7pm on Wednesday, three men had been rescued after spending more than 12 hours trapped under the collapsed structure.
The building is believed to have collapsed during the early hours of Wednesday morning after a metal structure was pulled down illegally by people who had been stealing metal parts.
The area was cordoned off, with Joburg metro police, Emergency Management Services (EMS), police, search and rescue teams, as well as the sniffer dog K9 unit on standby from 8am.
A fourth man who was rescued, Bhekumuzi Mahlangu, was taken to Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital early in the morning.
“He is in a serious but stable condition and suffered minor injuries to his ribs, arms and legs,” said emergency services spokeswoman Nana Radebe.
She said Mahlangu had told paramedics there were about 18 men still trapped under the rubble, but EMS could not confirm that number.
“We are not ruling out that possibility. We do suspect there’s more people,” she added.
Two other men had also escaped from the structure, but, fearing arrest, had run away.
Radebe said another man who had been in communication with the emergency workers, helping them to locate other people, was trapped under a beam.
“Trauma surgeons are on the scene and will determine whether to amputate his arm in order to rescue him. This may take a few hours,” she said.
A distraught Maria Matsinhe, who had been nervously walking up and down the area, had identified one of the four injured as a relative of hers.
She did not know the whereabouts of her partner, Simion Pacul, her brother and her nephew.
“I’m hurting inside, I just pray they come out safely,” she said.
Her family had come from Boksburg to collect metal parts to sell them.
She had been informed by her husband that the building had collapsed and rushed to get there as quickly as she could.
Radebe said rescue workers had to use wooden beams and structures to stabilise the fallen metal to try to get to the trapped men.
The old power station is situated behind the popular Orlando Towers and has been abandoned for many years.
Residents from the area said they had seen people constantly coming in at night to vandalise and steal metal from the building.
“This place hasn’t been in operation from as far back as 2005,” said a resident, who did not want to be named.
Another Orlando resident, Lindiwe Ndlovu, came to see whether her brother-in-law was one of the men trapped under the rubble.
She said he had been arrested just two months ago at the building for stealing scrap metal.
“My sister said he didn’t come home yesterday (Tuesday) and his phone has been off since. We suspect he is here, but we aren’t sure,” she said.
Soweto police spokesman Warrant Officer Kay Makhubela said three security guards who kept watch at the building were also believed to be trapped under the rubble.
“The police will try to trace the owner of the building to establish if the people were allowed to be on the property,” he said.
Makhubela said a further investigation into the trading of metals would take place.