Power, fire chaos in PMB

2009-01-09 00:00

A raging inferno on one block, a gas leak on the next — and over 20 people hospitalised: Pietermaritzburg’s city centre was in a frenzy of activity yesterday morning as rescue services had to attend both emergencies amid a power failure.

“The fireman carried me out of the building,” said Ramba Singh, as she sat on a fire engine with an oxygen mask on after a fire engulfed the building next to her residential block. “I have a medical problem, so I can’t walk up and down the stairs.”

The 59-year-old recalled hearing glass break at the time of the fire, but when she checked, she said, she didn’t see anything and returned indoors. “My neighbour came to tell me that there was a fire and we went and stood on the balcony.”

They remained there until the emergency services arrived. Essack Khan of the Msunduzi fire brigade said that “just over a dozen” tenants were trapped in the building, and that all of them were taken to Northdale Hospital to receive treatment for smoke inhalation.

He said it took firefighters around 30 minutes to put the fire out. “It appears that the fire started in the storeroom on the first floor of the building. There were no people in that building because the owner used it as a warehouse. However, the surrounding buildings were also affected.”

He said it was a good move for the residents to seek refuge on the balcony, as smoke inhalation is more likely to kill people in a fire than the actual fire. He added that the tenants complained that there were no extinguishers or fire hoses in the building.

ER24 paramedic Aldon Delport said that when they arrived “the fire was out of control on the first floor”.

“It was bad because it could have spread to the surrounding businesses. I must compliment the excellent work of the fire department,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the very next corner, six employees at a shoe shop were transported to Northdale Hospital to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. However, this was not a consequence of the fire, but allegedly caused by fumes from a faulty generator.

“We switched the generator on because there were no lights and after a while we all started smelling fumes. A lot of us got sick. Then, suddenly, people just started fainting — that’s when we called the ambulance,” said a manager at West End Shoes, Hanifa Hendricks, as she comforted a pregnant employee sitting outside the store.

The employee, who asked not to be named, was very concerned about the health of her baby. “We were in there for so long,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. Other employees prompted her to go to the hospital.

Netcare 911’s Chris Botha said they could not confirm in the field if her baby was okay, but said that all the employees are being treated.

The chaos was linked to the power outage across downtown and central Pietermaritzburg. The owner of the warehouse believes the fire was sparked by a generator.

Acting municipal manager Phil Mashoko said the outage was the result of an explosion that caused a fire at the mini sub-station that supplies electricity to downtown. “That caused the power outage [in Church Street] … They are replacing the whole sub,” he added.

Venay Ramsurwaj captured the action in Church Street on his cellphone.

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