Tebogo Khoduya was off-duty when the Bank of Lisbon fire broke out. Though not working, he didn’t hesitate to dash to the scene to help his dying colleagues.
Khoduya, who works for the Joburg Central fire station, said that when he arrived at the government building, he was inundated with phone calls from trapped firefighters begging for help.
“I went up to the ninth floor. When I was there, they called and said they were on the 23rd floor. When I got up there, there was so much smoke and it was so dark, I could not see,” Khoduya said on Thursday.
He said that as he was walking around the floor, he found a colleague who had burnt to death. “He was totally burnt. I passed him and then I could see there was a window, and could see that my colleagues had jumped out to get fresh air.
“When I got to the window, I found that my other colleague was slumped by the window on the floor and he was already dead. I jumped to the edge to go be with my other colleagues and reassure them that help was coming.”
When he got to his colleagues, he found that two of them were burnt on the arms. “They were losing a lot of water. When you get burnt, you lose water,” the still distraught firefighter said.
Three firefighters - Mduduzi Ndlovu, 40, Simphiwe Moropane, 28, and Khathutshelo Muedi, 37 - died in the burning building, which housed three government departments.
Muzikayise Zwane also lamented how fire department leaders refused to go into the building to rescue the trapped colleagues. Zwane, who was a pump operator on the day, said: “Station commanders and divisional commanders are more experienced than us. On the day, there were more than 40 of them on the scene but all of them refused to go into the building and rescue trapped colleagues.
“Why would they want firefighters to risk their own lives? It is a disgrace and very disappointing,” he said.
Now, firefighters in Joburg are threatening the government with class-action lawsuits and want a full judicial inquiry to be instituted, to investigate fire departments across the country.
Steven Faulkner of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) warned that the problems with uniform and safety measures were not only in Gauteng but nationwide
“We are now carefully considering the wisdom of calling for a full judicial inquiry, with very clear terms of reference, that will incorporate the historical lessons leading up to the most recent disaster and that will provide an opportunity to review the fire service as a whole, and not just in Johannesburg," he said.
The federation said they had information on issues that might have contributed to the deaths of the firefighters but they are keeping mum for now.
“As professional firefighters, we are in the process of making our own assessment of the fire, what caused it, how it was tackled and what needs to be done to ensure that something of this type never happens,” Faulkner said.
Saftu complained that when their members complained about hazardous conditions in the profession, 162 of them were suspended from work. While they were eventually reinstated, problems in the sector persisted.