Johannesburg - Two exhausted firefighters walked side by side, leaning on each other for support, after hours of fighting a blaze in which two of their colleagues died.
Their colleagues sat on the pavement, opposite the seven-storey Nedbank Mall along Albertina Sisulu Street in Joburg’s city centre.
The building caught fire at about 7pm on Saturday, witnesses said.
On Sunday, bystanders stood around the police lines, capturing the moment on their cellphones despite the cops’ disapproval.
Joburg Emergency Management Services (EMS) spokesman Robert Mulaudzi said they were alerted around 7.45pm and firefighters arrived on the scene about 15 minutes later.
They battled the flames until about 3am on Sunday.
Mulaudzi said about 30 firefighters found themselves trapped in the basement after an explosion.
“We started conducting our fire-fighting operation, and in the process, there was an explosion in the basement. Three of our crews were underground in the basement, they were trapped down there,” he said.
Mulaudzi said the rescue team lifted the trapped firemen out of the underground room and treated them for severe smoke inhalation.
They received advanced medical attention on the scene, he said.
However, two firefighters were certified dead despite paramedics’ efforts to resuscitate them.
A fireman was taken to Garden City Clinic and is in a critical condition.
Mulaudzi said the firefighter’s colleagues were traumatised.
The families of the deceased had been informed.
Mulaudzi declined to reveal the names of the dead.
“At the moment we are traumatised, but as the firefighter’s prayer says, we need to somehow get strength. We send our condolences to the affected families and the EMS family as a whole,” he said.
Mulaudzi said the deaths would not dampen their spirits.
“We must reassure the citizens of Johannesburg that we are still capable of rendering an effective and professional service.”
The cause of the fire was unknown and an investigation had been launched, he said.
Mulaudzi said the basement was the most damaged part of the building.
Several small businesses operating under the building were affected. The rescue team reportedly broke into one of the shops to gain alternative entry into the burning building.
“At the moment we don’t know how much stock was lost. When we got here around 10pm, the shop was already a mess,” said Kate Nwosa, the shopowner.
They broke inside because they thought there was an alternative entry into the building.
Tom Yanore, the owner of a clothing store next door to the hairpiece shop, said his stock was spoilt.
“I cannot open on Monday. I first have to wash all the remaining clothes because of the smoke. If I don’t get back to business by Monday afternoon I will not be able to pay my rent.”
Condolences poured in for the dead emergency workers on Sunday.
“The staff and management of ER24 express their condolences to family, friends and colleagues of the firefighters who died while fighting the blaze in the Joburg CBD during the early hours of this morning,” said Werner Vermaak, spokesman for ER24.
The spokesman for the Joburg metro police department, Wayne Minnaar, said: “We are saddened by the passing of firefighters who died in the line of duty.
“We want to extend our sincere condolences to the family and friends of those who paid the ultimate price in serving the community.”
Cope’s Dennis Bloem also added his voice.
“The death of two firefighters in a building is too saddening. Cope sends its heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the deceased who gave their lives to contain the blaze.”
Working On Fire posted on Facebook: “Working On Fire conveys condolences to the families of the Joburg Fire & Rescue fire fighters who tragically lost their lives while extinguishing a fire at one of the city's building.”