Johannesburg - On Pixley Seme Street in the Joburg CBD the fight to douse the last embers of a fire that robbed three firefighters of their lives had, for some, become their therapy.
By Friday morning, day three of the fire at the Bank of Lisbon Building, many of the Joburg firefighters on the scene were not supposed to be there.
This was their day off, but instead they donned their helmets, slipped into their jackets and headed back to the building.
This was the best way of dealing with the trauma of losing their three comrades, they said. Better than the trauma counselling provided by counsellors and chaplains. Some had even slept at the scene.
The main firefighting had all been done by Friday afternoon. All that was left was to “dampen down” to make sure the fire would not reignite, by dousing it with water.
Defeating this blaze had taken the work of firefighters from Tshwane, OR Tambo International Airport and the SA National Defence Force.
But wisps of smoke could still be seen coming from some of the gutted floors - a warning that it could all flare up again. The firefighters that had come from neighbouring towns and cities had left by now.
“You know, fighting fires in high-rise buildings is always dangerous, there is no escape” said one firefighter, who didn’t want to be named. It was easy to get trapped and then there was the issue of water.
Water, or the lack of it, appeared to have killed Simphiwe Moropane, Mduduzi Ndlovu and Kathutshelo Muedi.
On Wednesday morning, the brave group had walked up the stairs to the 23rd floor, carrying hoses on their backs.
Once at the scene of the fire, the procedure was that they would connect their hoses to an internal fire hydrant. In firefighter-speak, they would attack the fire with “a charged line”, a hose filled with water.
“This was not a big fire. They went up but then two minutes later they said there was no water, they couldn’t stop the back-draft,” said the firefighter.
The tragedy was one of the worst to hit the Joburg firefighting department.
On Friday, the families of the deceased visited the scene.
“The families wanted to see the scene for themselves. They had seen it all on social media,” said Nana Radebe, spokesperson for Joburg emergency services.
For a moment they stared up at the guttered 23rd floor where it had all gone so wrong. Then they joined a huddle with other firemen, prayed and quickly left.
They refused to speak to the media.
Firefighters said they planned to approach their union about the problem of non-working hydrants in buildings.
However, the regional secretary of the SA Municipal Workers Union, Bafana Zungu, said these hydrants were a big problem across the city and the municipality was not doing enough to create a safe working environment for its workers.
“The municipality must take full responsibility for their deaths,” he said.
The EFF on Friday also blamed the local government for the fire and opened a case of murder against Human Settlements MEC Uhuru Moiloa.
“The government is supposed to lead by example," said the EFF Gauteng chairperson, Mandisa Mashego. She added to the speculation that the blaze was caused by arson.
Determining if it was arson would be the work of another group of firefighters who stood waiting on Pixley Seme Street on Friday afternoon.
They were the fire investigators. With the all-clear, they too would begin to climb the stairs to the 23rd floor to establish what caused the killer blaze that took the lives of their three comrades.
The Saturday Star