Manchester Road inferno

2008-12-11 00:00

MANCHESTER Road was a scene of chaos and pandemonium yesterday afternoon as business owners scrambled to salvage goods after a massive fire ravaged the business district.

Roofs collapsed, drums of chemicals exploded and factory goods lay strewn about as the fire-fighters battled the flames and police tried to maintain calm.

Shop owners and staff loaded vehicles with what remained of their merchandise. Behind the red tape that cordoned off the scene, people rushed through foamy streets, carrying clothing rails still stocked with garments that had been on sale earlier that afternoon.

Hundreds of people — business owners, workers and bystanders — watched helplessly as the buildings around them went up in flames.

Msunduzi fire, rescue and disaster management station officer Nolan Diaz, who was one of the first fire-fighters at the scene, described the conflagration as “a big one”.

“For now, we are allowing some of the drums, with the chemicals that popped, to burn. We call this the damping down, where we just put out little fires here and there.”

Diaz said there were a few explosions in the chemical factory, where the fire started.

The fumes are very dangerous, he added, but “our fighters are wearing masks at all times”.

Essack Khan, who was in charge of the firefighting operation, said the alert was received at around 4 pm.

It is suspected that the fire started in a chemical factory that makes cosmetics and carries inflammables like benzene, paraffin and thinners.

“The problem is, the factories are closely compacted. But as we speak, the fire is under control and there are no injuries. Because of all the liquid flammables in the factory, it caused a big fire load, causing the fire to spread rapidly to three adjacent buildings.”

Three other factories were extensively damaged, while structural damage was reported at smaller businesses.

Khan said the the fire-fighting and disaster teams had to use all its resources, call in their night staff and off-duty personnel, and the Howick and Ashburton fire departments.

The owner of Wesley Watson Shoes said December is his busiest season and the fire could not have come at a worse time.

“My roof caved in and most of the shoes got damaged by the water. It is terrible; it means no sales for us.”

He estimated damages to be about R100 000.

Two of the worst affected businesses were part of the Galaxy Factory Shop and Workshop.

“Everything is burnt down,” said the owner’s wife, as her husband sat on a couch with his head between his hands, too shocked to speak.

The smell of burnt plastic filled the air as fire teams battled the remaining flames in the factory that contained skeletons of what used to be furniture. Even after the major fire was put out, one could still hear the sound of the roof caving in and firemen tramping on broken window glass.

A group of foreign nationals, who worked there, stood in awe in the aftermath of the fire.

Speaking to The Witness, they said they weren’t sure if they would get bonuses this Christmas.

They said they had heard screams from the neighbouring chemical shop and upon investigation discovered that the shop was in flames. They tried to put out the flames using hose pipes, without success.

Paul Dickson said he had R1 000 and a passport in his bag, while two of his colleagues had R700 and R400 respectively. They say all of this was burnt in the fire.

“It is a big problem. We have children and families but we won’t have anything for Christmas. Our cellphones and money are all gone. I’m not sure what to do, this is very bad,” he said.

A business owner from the area, Sheik Osman Allee, said that he rushed to the site after getting a call from a relative.

“My shop did not burn down. But that is my cousin-brother’s shop,” he said pointing at one of the shops that were damaged by the fire. “I’m looking for him. I’m very worried.”

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