The body of a firefighter who died on the line of duty is taken out of the Bank of Lisbon building, 37 Pixley ka Isaka Seme Street, after it was engulfed by a blaze on Tuesday morning. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency(ANA)
The body of a firefighter who died on the line of duty is taken out of the Bank of Lisbon building, 37 Pixley ka Isaka Seme Street, after it was engulfed by a blaze on Tuesday morning. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency(ANA) 473 05.09.2018

#JoburgFire: 3 firefighters dead, 8 injured as blaze rips through govt building

By Siphelele Dludla and Khanyisile Ngcobo Time of article published Sep 5, 2018

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Johannesburg - Joburg firefighters will remember Wednesday as one of the most tragic days in their careers of saving lives after three of their fellow fireman died in the line of duty while trying to battle the blaze in a high-rise government building in the inner city.

A deadly combination of ignoring red flags, taking too long to act, lack of sufficient infrastructure and some conspiracy theories were among the reasons given by various officials and ordinary civilians who were reacting to one of Johannesburg's darkest days as the fire 

The fire which erupted at the 23-floor of the Bank of Lisbon building, 37 Pixley ka Isaka Seme Street, which houses the departments of health, human settlements and co-operative governance and traditional affairs. 

One firefighter fell to his death after an explosion while two others died while trying to battle the blaze. Eight others have been hospitalised with various degrees of injuries and burns. At least 13 officials from the provincial department of health have also been hospitalised and were treated for smoke inhalation. 

At this point, the cause of the fire is still unknown. All staff members were evacuated and are receiving counselling. 

Bystanders who were watching the fire blazing through the building spoke of how they saw the firefighter falling to his death and how traumatizing the experience was for them.

Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi/AfricanNewsAgency/ANA

Government has admitted that the building did not comply with the stipulations of occupation, health and safety regulations.

Gauteng member of the executive council (MEC) for Infrastructure Development said that in August last year, the department commissioned a study to assess the state of eight government-owned buildings which brought the matters the Bank of Lisbon building to their attention. 

Mamabolo said they had for some time been concerned with the state of government buildings and in 2017 commissioned an assessment for occupational health and safety. 

"Just last week we received a report that indicate the condition and state of all the provincial government buildings which have people and are being utilized. The reason we conducted an assessment was because we have received reports about the conditions of our buildings," Mamabolo said.

"That report does indicate indeed our concerns as provincial government that the building was non-compliant with occupational health and safety standards. The building only had 21 percent level of compliance against the norm of 85 percent. We will receive the report on the rest of other buildings and check if they are compliant."

The building has been shut down to allow investigators to conduct investigations into the cause of the fire while the department of infrastructure is working with the three departments to find alternative office space.

Workers at the offices said they have been complaining about poor conditions at the building for a long time. Percy Makholwa who works at the Gauteng department of human settlements policy and research unit, said staff had been raising issues with the department about the safety of the building, but so far nothing had been done.

"They kept on telling us that the building is safe... we are asking the Gauteng government to take the lives of their employees seriously and respect our dignity," said Makholwa.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura said the provincial government was in the process of moving workers from several non-compliant buildings, including the Bank of Lisbon building. 

Makhura, speaking to the media, confirmed that the process was already underway to move workers from the building following the release of a report last week. 

The report found that the building was "not compliant" in terms of health and safety regulations and was only 21% compliant. 

Ideally the building should be 85% or higher compliant.

"The latest report was just last week... we had already started moving the two departments. At this stage we have seven other buildings and I have taken a decision that we will have to find temporary accommodation for staff.

"As things stand, we don't know what the cause of the fire is. Fortunately, there's a staff member who was in the room... the police are going to interview the member."

He added that workers had been advised to not come to work until a temporary work space is found. 

Adding to this was Joburg MMC for Safety Michael Sun said that he, along with the premier, would be visiting those still in hospital. 

Mayor Herman Mashaba, who has been on a warpath against derelict and hijacked bulidings in Jourg, also put the blame squarely at the doorstep of the provincial government, and called upon Makhura to probe the circumstances that led to the fire.

"The efforts to put out the blaze were hampered by a lack of sufficient water pressure in the building which is an important safety requirement in a building of this size. It is reported that several government officials who evacuated the building have referred to unsafe conditions in the offices," Mashaba said.

"As government, we must set the standard by which we expect building owners in Johannesburg to comply for the sake of the safety of those who live and work in these buildings."

Pixley kaSeme as well as Albertina Sisulu streets will remain closed on Thursday to clean up debris. 

Government employees who work in the building have been asked to stay at home until they receive further communication when to resume their duties.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) in Gauteng threw a conspiracy theory into the midst by saying that it was peculiar that the fire broke out on the floor that dealt with corruption investigations, especially alleged corruption at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

"While the investigation will have to be undertaken on the cause of the fire, however, Denosa finds it quite interesting that the fire broke out on the 23rd floor where the legal department is," it said in a statement.

"Our finding it interesting is that the legal department is busy conducting an investigation on corruption within the department, where culprits who have been draining the coffers of the department could be pinpointed. We hope there is no foul play."

The nursing organisation further said the provincial health and infrastructure departments must take the blame for the deaths because organised labour had been warning the employer on the state of the building for years, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

African News Agency/ANA and IOL

* This story forms part of the #HighSchoolsQuiz study material. Click here for more #HighSchoolsQuiz stories.

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