Heroine of the horror

2010-08-03 00:00

JOHANNESBURG — “You could hear them crying and calling out in the darkness. It was pitch black. I had them lie on sheets and dragged them down the corridor and out the exit.”

Marie Bronkhorst, the catering manager at the Pieter Wessels Old Age Home in Dunnottar on the East Rand, dragged 15 residents to safety and then helped to save two more from the burning building.

Eighteen people were killed and one was taken to the Charlotte Maxeke hospital in Johannesburg with serious burns after the home caught fire at about 8 pm on Sunday night.

Bronkhorst has been working at the home for 30 years. Of the patients she saved, 12 were bedridden and three could walk only with assistance.

“There’s a large man in section three,” she said. “I tried to pull him [from the bed], but he was too heavy and I pulled the sheet out from under him. Later I called a fireman and my husband. The fireman picked him up and carried him out.”

Not everyone was so lucky. Charlene Labuschagne, a spokesperson for the National Prosecution Authority, heard yesterday morning that her uncle, Stephen Wallace (57), was one of the 18 who died in the blaze.

“He was paralysed so he couldn’t escape the fire. It’s terrible. He was lying in bed when he burnt to death.”

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Apparently it started in a room in section three and then soon spread through the ceiling to the rest of the building.

There are rumours that a smouldering cigarette might have set a chair on fire, which first ignited the curtains and then the ceiling and roof.

According to Beeld’s information, about a year ago concerns were raised about the efficacy of the sprinkler system and the fire extinguishers in the building. A quote for about R80 000 was reportedly presented to the home’s management.

The quote would have included fire extinguishers, among other things. As far as Beeld could determine, no fire extinguishers were used on Sunday night.

Louis Gouws, director of the home, which is managed and maintained by the Seventh Day Adventist church, was not available for comment about the allegations last night. He did, however, say yesterday morning that fire drills were held at the home.

Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu said the evacuation of frail elderly residents will receive attention in future.

“One can’t expect people who, for example, suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or those who are infirm to understand or remember the procedures.”

ONE of the residents rescued from the burning home was embarrassed that she wasn’t properly dressed, rescuers said yesterday

Charl du Toit, the home’s administrator, helped to save people from the burning building.

“One old lady complained she wasn’t dressed appropriately. I told her it didn’t matter at that moment and carried her out of the building.”

Another resident was still upset on Monday about her false teeth, left standing in a glass of water next to her bed, when she was taken to a nearby Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) hall.

“The residents who couldn’t be carried were asked to lie down on mattresses or sheets and we pulled them out.”

The shocked elders were made to sit or lie on the lawn while they waited to be taken to shelters. While a lucky few residents clutched their cellphones, helpers patiently explained to a blind resident what was happening.

Thirty people are being housed at the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) and 18 are at the DRC hall. At the AFM hall, Remsie Visser ensured that everyone was dressed warmly and that everyone’s names were noted. At the DRC hall, mattresses formed an enormous bed on the floor while donated clothing was sorted by size over the church benches. The remaining residents were taken to the Zanele Mbeki home (formerly the Tienie Vorster home.

Of the home’s 105 residents, 55 don’t have any family or close relatives.

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