Fire fighters fight a fire at Rhodes Memorial. March 17 2009 Photo by Michael Walker

Durban - A man doing maintenance work on the Bluff has been hailed as a hero after rescuing an elderly woman trapped in a burning house.

At first, Sanele Khawula, 24, of uMlazi, was nervous about braving the inferno, but sprang into action after hearing desperate pleas from teenage children helplessly watching the Kiora Road house go up in flames with the elderly woman trapped inside.

“I thought she was dead. I was shocked that she survived. I thought to myself, ‘If at least we can retrieve the body…’” Khawula recounted on Thursday.

The blaze ripped through the house and left 93-year-old Neli Mbhele critically injured.

Khawula said: “I was working at the house across the road doing some maintenance. I suddenly saw thick smoke coming out of the house and a couple of people running towards it. I ran over, but when I got to the home, I realised the gate was closed.”

A group of people gathered outside, some jumping over the locked gate.

“I heard a child scream, ‘Someone’s still in the house, granny’s trapped.’ The people already inside the property were struggling to connect the hosepipe,” he said.

“By then, there was too much smoke and the residents seemed reluctant to go to the left side of the house… I realised we were working against the clock and had to do something fast. I found this guy in a frantic state trying to break the window with a brick. Due to his size, it was difficult for him to go through the window.”

The man was believed to be the trapped woman’s son, who had arrived this week for a visit.

“I went in without hesitating but came out immediately because of the smoke,” said Khawula.

He tried to go in again but was forced to leave by the thick smoke.

“This time, I asked the man to give me his T-shirt to cover my nose and mouth,” he said.

Khawula went back in but could not find the woman because of the smoke .

“But I could hear that there was someone breathing,” he said. “I patted both beds and could not find her. By then, the ceiling board and the door had started burning. That was when I saw her next to the door. I picked her up, put her on the bed and took her out through the window.”

Emergency Services Rescue Care spokesman Garrith Jamieson said the woman was in a critical condition.

Mbhele had severe burns and was placed on a ventilator. Once stabilised, she was taken to Hillcrest Hospital.

The Mercury