Search dogs called in to find victims trapped under the rubble

The entrance of one of Johannesburg’s largest hospitals has collapsed and eyewitnesses say it is unclear if anyone is trapped beneath the rubble.

The Charlotte Maxeke Hospital has more than 1 000 beds. Speaking to Bhekisisa, health workers at the scene described images of chaos as people worked frantically to clear the rubble following the collapse on Thursday afternoon.

Gauteng health department spokesperson Vuyo Sabani said the department could not comment as it had only just learned about the incident. Videos sent to Bhekisisa show the hospital’s ground floor in chaos. A nurse, who asked not to be named, said there were no immediate plans to evacuate the building that she knew of, but that it would be difficult to move the facility’s hundreds of patients.

We will be updating this story as more details become available.

[Updated 2 March 3:41 pm] One hospital worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was not surprised the roof collapsed near reception. She said that repair work had already been started on the entrance when it collapsed: Water leaks from there every day.”

She also said that security guards and patients waiting for transport back to other health facilities were likely to be trapped under the debris.

She explained: “There are security (guards) that are trapped inside there and patients that were waiting for transport to go back to their hospitals because we treat patients from Germiston, Edenvale and all over Gauteng.”

Charlotte Maxeke Hospital is a major referral hospital, meaning that it treats patients from around not only Gauteng but also neighbouring provinces that lack specialised services like cancer treatment.

[Updated 2 March 3:57 pm] Head of Gauteng emergency medical services Arnold Malotana confirmed that about 12 people were working in the area when the structure crumbled. He added that the four people injured during the incident have been rushed to casualty.

Officials are working with contractors to ensure that all workers are accounted for, Malotana said. Preliminary searches of the rubble did not reveal anyone buried underneath. He added emergency workers still have two sections of debris to sift through. 

In a statement, the Gauteng department of health said it could not confirm the cause of the accident. 

Listen to Charlotte Maxeke Hospital’s Steve Moeng describe the injuries sustained by victims of the accident 

[Updated 2 March 4:18 pm] Gauteng emergency medical services spokesperson Nana Radebe has confirmed that two people are still stuck under the rubble.

[Updated 2 March 6:00 pm] Gauteng Health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa has confirmed that at least five people have been injured and that two private construction workers, two patients and one hospital employee are being treated. 

Speaking to journalists, she said social workers were in the process of contacting families of the injured.

The department has also issued a statement to allay fears that the collapse could affect the safety of the hospital’s more than 1000 patients.

“We want to assure the public that we share their concerns in terms of patient safety while confirming that the incident is confined to the main entrance of the hospital, so patients are not affected,” said the department in a statement.

Meanwhile, ER24 spokesperson Russel Meiring says rescue crews are working to find an additional three people still suspected to be buried among the rubble.

“We’ve had to use specialised rescue equipment to try and stabilise the scene at the moment. We’ve got the K9 search and rescue dogs that have gone through to see if there’s anyone trapped under the rubble,” he said.

Meiring explained: “Authorities and ER24 are on the scene trying to wade through the rubble, but unfortunately this is a very tedious and timeous process.”

He said crews expect to clear the debris within coming hours. 

[Updated 2 March 7:55 pm] Gauteng Infrastructure MEC Jacob Mamabolo has confirmed that the contractor, Thanzanani Trading Enterprises, has been removed from the site.

“Obviously from what we have seen here, … any reasonable contractor would have taken proper measures to check the structure of the building,” Mamabolo said.

Both Thanzanani Trading Enterprises and the departmental engineer in charge of the project now face an investigation.

“If we find that the resident engineer or any of our officials have not done their part, we will take steps with immediate effect,” he said.

Mamabolo explained that if Thanzanani is found to be at fault, the company could be blacklisted, which would prevent them from ever tendering for a government contract again. The organisation could also face a legal battle if found to be criminally liable. 

Mamabolo warned: “We are not going to leave any stone unturned, I can assure you of that.”

[Updated 2 March 8:33 pm] Meiring confirmed that about 11 patients in total had sustained injuries as part of the collapse. But he cautioned that the search for more victims under the debris was likely to continue late into the night.

“The scene is still very unsafe – there is quite a bit of rubble to be removed and there is a (piece of the) roof that is leaning down so that has to be stabilised,” he said.

“This is still going to take us a couple of hours.” 

[Updated 3 March 11:40 am] Democratic Alliance health spokesperson Jack Bloom has called for an independent investigation into the incident. He has also demanded that an urgent structural engineering assessment of the hospital be carried out to identify whether any further areas are in danger of collapse.

Meanwhile, workers at the hospital who wished to remain anonymous say that leaks are common throughout the building. Employees say that they have been told these are due to rusted pipes and that these are being replaced.

In 2012, a report leaked to media warned about structural problems at the facility.

Bloom said in a statement that he had identified various problems in March 2016 at the hospital.

He says: “Staff have complained for years about roofs that leak water and sewage.”

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