/ 1 January 2002

Police probe arson claims at historic Jo’burg building

Johannesburg police were on Wednesday investigating a case of arson after the city almost lost another of its early 20th-century buildings on Tuesday night. A fire gutted the famous Marshall Street Barracks

Johannesburg police were on Wednesday investigating a case of arson after the city almost lost another of its early 20th-century buildings on Tuesday night. A fire gutted the famous Marshall Street Barracks.

Police representative Sergeant Tsumke Sanku on Wednesday confirmed an

arson docket had been opened. Meanwhile, a team of forensics experts combed the remains of the building to determine the cause of the fire.

Johannesburg Disaster Management spokesman Malcolm Midgley said an unidentified man alerted Kruis Street fire station personnel to the blaze on Tuesday night. The fire was raging just five blocks away. Fire fighters were immediately dispatched from the Fairview and Brixton fire stations.

Aerial appliances such as ladders and hydraulic lift platforms from Turfontein and Kibler Park were also brought in. The incident is reminiscent of last year’s gutting of the early 20th-century Drill Hall in Plein street.

The fire apparently started on the ground floor of the Barracks’ three-storey 1913 structure and quickly grew. Midgley said at least a quarter of the building on Anderson Street would have to be demolished. The Marshall Street façade appeared not to be affected, although it was by no means safe.

He also gave the assurance the city would do its best to save the north-facing facade of the building. City manager Pascal Moloi was being kept updated on developments through his representative, who visited the disaster scene with a top-level delegation of city councillors.

The provincial public works department owned the building, which was occupied by homeless people. The exact number of occupants was unknown.

Midgely said estimates varied between 100 and 1 000, but it was believed the rambling structure probably accommodated closer to 1 000 people. One resident told Midgley he had lived in the building for some time and had ”no idea” how many rooms the barracks had.

The building’s large inner courtyard area was used as a storage area for hawkers’ wares — ranging from shoes and clothing to electronic goods and foodstuffs. These items literally added fuel to the raging fire.

Wozani Security guards had on Wednesday cordoned off the area until the building could be properly sealed. Hawkers whose goods had been stored at the barracks waited patiently while a safety review of the area was performed. The hawkers would be allowed to reclaim whatever of their goods could be salvaged after the review.

In a statement on Wednesday African Council of Hawkers and Informal Businesses said about 2 000 hawkers had lost goods to the value of R10-million in the fire. ”The irony is that on Tuesday night and a few days before that a Johannesburg municipality delegation visited the barracks,” Midgely said.

”Possible future uses for the building were being discussed as part of Johannesburg’s inner-city rejuvenation incentive Project Blue IQ.”

Initially central Johannesburg’s police headquarters before it moved to what is now Johannesburg Central police station, the building was then home to the Transvaal Light Horse regiment, and later the Irish regiment.

When the military down-scaled its operations and moved out from most of its Johannesburg premises the building was left empty and virtually abandoned when homeless people began moving in. Midgley said most residents disappeared once officials arrived. Those who remained behind were hostile and unco-operative, Midgley said. It was later determined that many residents were illegal immigrants.

By noon the council had received only 69 formal requests for assistance from residents. Disaster management would help with supplies and shelter, where possible, he said. – Sapa