/ 5 September 2018

#JoburgFire: Workers say building was a ‘house of horrors’

Author Khaya Dlanga.
By late afternoon on Wednesday firefighters had been fighting the blaze for almost eight hours (Renata Larroyd/MG)

The Joburg government building where three firefighters lost their lives on Wednesday has been described as a “house of horrors” with workers claiming a litany of blatant health and safety concerns before tragedy struck.

On a weekday which usually sees gridlocked traffic during peak hour through the city centre, there is no traffic on Pixley ka Isaka Seme Street, the street running in front of ANC headquarters Luthuli House. The street, usually clogged with people heading home, is cut in half by yellow tape. Emergency vehicles, fire engines and JMPD are the only vehicles allowed to park to in front of the head office of the Gauteng department of health where a fire started raging earlier in the day.

People remained clustered around traffic lights on either side of the structure, also known as the Bank of Lisbon building, to watch firefighters enter the building from the eighth floor. Many had just knocked off work. One embroider, who works in Jeppestown, said she had followed the drama from social media, choosing to come to work early for her nightshift because she feared the traffic congestion.

Employees at the Lisbon building, who had remained to watch firefighters contain the fire, said they had been complaining for some time about the safety of the building.

One security guard who works on the second and fourth floor of the department building said that since renovations began on bathrooms on each floor of the building, people began reporting broken pipes, flooded garage floors and dirty water.

READ MORE: #JoburgFire: ‘This is what we warned would happen’ – unions

The security guard added that he had noticed cracks in the ceiling of the parkade which would flood the floor when it rained.

“What has been going on in the building can only be described as a house of horrors,” said William Maphutha, who works in the building at the department of human settlements.

“It was not a surprise that the fire broke out,” he said.

An employee who works on the ninth floor of the building said tap water had been undrinkable for as long as he could remember. He added that everyone was so scared when the fire started that people just grabbed their belongings and left the building.

“I am too scared to go back into that building,” said the employee from the ninth floor.

According to authorities, the departments housed in the Bank of Lisbon building will have the next two days off until an alternative office space is found for the departments of health, human settlements and cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

By late afternoon on Wednesday firefighters had been fighting the blaze for almost eight hours.

Windows on the 23rd floor, where the fire apparently broke out, were blackened by the blaze. Firefighters, working in teams, have contained the fire to one floor.

Other than the three firefighters who died, 13 employees were hospitalised for smoke inhalation.

A case has been opened to investigate the incident, said one fire warden.

Two departments were already being moved out of the Lisbon building when the fire broke out, said Gauteng Premier David Makhura.

Makhura said his office became aware of the problem in a report that was released last week. He added that his office had already begun to decommission buildings that were not compliant. He added that buildings are reviewed once a year. 

Gauteng Premier David Makhura. and Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi (Renata Larroyd/MG)