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‘No one took Wanderers fire seriously at first’

Most of the historic Wanderers cricket clubhouse in Johannesburg was destroyed by fire on Wednesday night. By 9.30pm flames were still raging in one corner of the building — three hours after the fire first began. Emergency services said the situation was under control, although less than a third of the building was still intact.

”The rear of the building has been saved, and we managed to prevent it spreading into the gymnasium,” spokesperson Stephen Kirk said at the scene.

However, the old clock tower in the centre of the building had collapsed in a shower of sparks. Seven fire fighting vehicles were at the scene, with relief crews arriving through the evening.

The cause of the fire, which started in the kitchen of the Chariot’s bar, was not immediately clear.

Club members watched their headquarters being devoured. Leon Epstein said: ”It was about 6.30pm. I ordered another beer and the lights went off. Staff members were walking around with little fire extinguishers trying to douse the flames.”

He has been a club member for the past 35 years. ”It’s so sad. All the memorabilia and history of this place is all gone.”

Strewn on the grass outside were some photo frames and medals that staff and club members had managed to salvage.

Wanderers committee member Thabang Skwambane said the fire started in the kitchen and seemed to be gas related. He said the flames got into the air vents, which was why it had gone out of control.

Flames leaping to the air could be seen from the nearby Wanderers stadium where a one-day international cricket match continued to be played between South Africa A and New Zealand A.

Kirk said it was impossible to tell how much structural damage had been done to the building at this stage. Inspectors started entering parts of the building around 10pm.

No injuries were reported, Kirk said.

No one took the fire seriously at first, said Herbert Nkosi, head waiter at the Varamdas restaurant in the clubhouse.

”The fire brigade came out after staff members saw smoke in the kitchen. They left because it appeared to be nothing serious, but after 10 minutes they were back again.”

By then we saw fire everywhere. It had caught the whole building,” he said.

The Wanderers club was established in 1888 and moved to Illovo in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg in the 1930s.

”I can’t believe it. It’s very sad. It was a nice place,” said Nkosi.

”We have lost our jobs already. We don’t know what to do. My bosses are very worried too. It’s a very sad day for us.” – Sapa

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