#JoburgsBravest: 'Firefighters had to use their hands to put out fire'

Firefighters from all over the city attended the memorial service. (Renata Larroyd/M&G)

Firefighters from all over the city attended the memorial service. (Renata Larroyd/M&G)

Firefighters had to use their hands to put out the fire at the Bank of Lisbon building in central Johannesburg last week, said firefighter Muzikayise Zwane on Wednesday.

Zwane was paying tribute to the three firefighters who died during the fire at the Bank of Lisbon building in central Johannesburg the week before.

“There was no water [in the Lisbon building]. I couldn’t believe a government building could be like this.
… Government buildings killed our brothers,” said Zwane.

The firefighters who lost their lives fighting the blaze were: Simphiwe Moropane (28), Mduduzi Ndlovu (40), and Kathutshelo Muedi (37) .

The memorial service was organised by City of Johannesburg but the ceremony was not without controversy.

Just before the wreath laying service, there was a protest, with over a 100 firefighters calling for R4 000 in danger allowance. Firefighters sang “thuma mina” in protest, drowning out the voices of the Helen Joseph Choir, which had been hired for the event. Members of the Emergency Management Services (EMS) were seen holding placards demanding a R4000 danger allowance.

The issue would be taken up to management, said EMS spokesperson Nana Radebe when asked about the placards. She added that the focus of this day was to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Zwane said that a firefighter’s salary was so small that firefighters “couldn’t couldn’t afford bonds” during the memorial service.

A Joburg EMS official (who did not want to be named) told the Mail & Guardian that firefighters did not receive danger pay.

Before the memorial service family members of the deceased, members from political parties, and officials from the City of Johannesburg laid wreaths outside the ravaged Lisbon building. When the families were ushered inside the burnt building,  a cry echoed through it.

Firefighters from all over the city attended the memorial service. Several firefighters spoke on anonymity before the service, saying that it is still shocking to lose a life even when their job might demand their life from them.

The Lisbon building had housed three government departments: health, human settlements and co-operative governance. On the day of the fire, firefighters evacuated 1 115 government staff members.

“We are here because of them,” the master of ceremonies, Ntombi Khumalo, said opening up the memorial service.

“It’s dangerous work,” said Firefighter Simphiwe Sibiya from Fairview fire station during the memorial service.

He added that he was hurt by comments that firefighters are not equipped to fight fires on high rise buildings.

“We’ve been fighting fires on high rise buildings for years,” said Sibiya.

“We are here to honour our brothers. We shouldn’t be blaming each other.”

Moropane, from the Fairview Fire Station, was the first firefighter to lose his life when he fell from the 23rd storey of the Bank of Lisbon building, EMS Spokesperson Nana Radebe confirmed.

According to media reports, he tripped as he made his way through the thick smoke to get some fresh air from a window after running out of oxygen.

Zwane said that he “couldn’t recognize him (Moropane) because of the way he was so smashed.”

Moropane has left behind his wife and two children. His wife started a GoFundMe page asking the public to donate towards her children’s education. To date, the site has raised R34 062.

Ndlovu, from the Johannesburg Central fire station, died from smoke inhalation. Muedi, from the Fairview Station, burnt to death. Both had been trapped in the building.

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

The funeral service for Moropane will be held on Friday September 14 at Oasis Family Church in Daveyton. Muedi will be laid to rest on Saturday September 15 at Lwamondo Dzwerani in Limpopo and Ndlovu’s funeral will be held on Sunday September 16 at Doringkop Farm, Mavimbela Stand in Dannhausser, KwaZulu-Natal.

Facts and Figures

EMS Media Liaison Officer Robert Mulaudzi said that in the Joburg emergency services, there are 1 400 firefighters and emergency medical technicians qualified to conduct fire fighting operations and emergency medical service duties.

When firefighters respond to an incident, there are six firefighters per engine, and there should be at least one engine at each station. But this is not always the case. According to Mulaudzi, most of the engines “spend more time at the workshops being repaired than being on the road servicing residents”.

“To make matters worse, most of them [fire engines] are imported so it take longer to order parts for repairs and maintenance.”

A station like Jabulani Fire Station will attend to 200 to 250 a month on average, he said. 

There are 31 fire stations that serve seven regions in Joburg.

On Sunday during a press briefing, City of Joburg MMC for community safety Michael Sun said that the city’s fire engines were not fully equipped to deal with blazes in tall buildings.

“I don’t know if any metropolitan or department in this country has a ladder that can reach that height (23 storeys). Overseas maybe, but definitely not locally,” Sun told The Star.

Gemma Ritchie

Gemma Ritchie

Gemma Ritchie works in the Mail & Guardian's online department. She majored in English Literature at a small liberal arts college in the USA. 
  • Read more from Gemma Ritchie
    • Lawrence Mashiyane

      Lawrence Mashiyane

      Lawrence is a Third-year Linguistics and English Literature student at the University of Johannesburg. He is currently pursuing a career as a writer and editor.
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