Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni
Premium Journalist
3 minute read
13 Nov 2018
6:00 am

Flames engulfed us, we couldn’t find water – Bank of Lisbon firefighters

Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni

The last two firefighters injured in the inferno in Joburg's CBD that killed three others left hospital yesterday, recounting their fight for survival.

Johannesburg firefighters Isaac Moleko Bereng and Livhuwani Maumela after they were discharged from hospital yesterday, 12 November 2018. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

Firefighters who survived the tragic Bank Of Lisbon fire in September this year were nearly trapped and burned to death because the fire-escape was blocked by a magnetic security gate, their accounts of the event have suggested.

According to firemen Livhuwani Maumela and Moleko Bereng, who were hospitalised for more than two months following the tragic event, what began as a mission to kill the blaze became a desperate fight for survival as flames engulfed them.

Bereng, who was leading the firefighters and had found the “seat of the fire” on the 24th floor, said things took a turn for the worse when he realised not only could they not find a connection to water, access to the fire-escape was also restricted.

He had to keep his team from panicking.

“We found that there is nothing (no water) and then the escape exit is a magnetic access control. So, it seems no one can enter there, only the person with access control,” said Bereng. “I was trying to calm the others guys down – they were all panicking.”

He eventually found a window to break.

This was the floor from which firefighter Simphiwe Maropane, 24, fell to his death.

Maumela and Bereng sustained severe burns to their hands and underwent skin grafting. They said extreme heat forced them to remove their gloves because in their struggle for finding water they had to block fire with their hands.

“We ran out of water and that was when the fire was raging even more. The building was burning so much we didn’t know what to do.

“It was like if a policeman goes to a shoot-out without a gun. Or if a policeman has a gun with no bullets. Our bullet is water.”

The two firefighters were discharged from hospital yesterday – an event the City of Joburg marked with a guard of honour featuring some of their team-members from the blaze.

During the press briefing, officials were quick to stop the two men from going into more details of how they were injured and who they blamed for their ordeal and the deaths of their colleagues. They reminded them that investigations into the blaze are still pending.

While the city’s investigation was not dependent on that of other authorities, community safety MMC Michael Sun said his office would be working with the South African Police Service and had plans to meet and compare notes.

“We, as the City of Joburg will be conducting our own investigation.

“I personally follow up on the progress of the investigation results regularly.

“We are hoping that in the next few months the investigation will have concluded and we will be able to report back the findings to know what exactly caused the fire and what really fuelled the fire to such an extent it burned for two days,” said Sun.

Meanwhile the completion of the police investigation would determine the commencement of a “full” investigation by Gauteng authorities, said Premier David Makhura’s spokesperson, Thabo Masebe.

He said their investigation was into the structural integrity of the building and would lead to a decision on whether to demolish the building or repair it.

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