A fire engine crane at the burning building on Wednesday. Picture: Timothy Bernard AfricanNewsAgency

Johannesburg - The fire at the 23-storey government building in the CBD, which houses the Bank of Lisbon and the department of health, was still raging on Thursday morning and had spread to other parts.

The building caught alight Wednesday morning.

Johannesburg Emergency Services spokesperson Nana Radebe told 702 Talk Radio early on Thursday morning that the fire had spread from the top floors to the 16th floor and that firefighters had left the building because the "water pressure was low".

She said firefighting efforts would resume later in the morning.

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.

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 on Wednesday spoke of how they saw the firefighter falling to his death and how traumatising the experience was for them.

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 indicated 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. 

African News Agency and IOL