The Burning of the Colonial Building: An eyewitness account by David Clark

2009-05-15 00:00

At 12.05 while walking up Church Street past the Colonial Building I noticed a small flame coming from the tower over the main entrance to the building. I quickly went into the Clicks shop and asked them to phone the Fire Department.

A short while later the Fire Department arrived on the scene, not with the snorkel truck, but with a piddly little tender. The Fire Department took an eternity to get set up and soon the whole tower at the top of the building was burning fiercely.

When the Fire Department eventually started their pumps the stream of water was so ineffective it could not even reach the height required to put water on the fire. The stream of water was far short of the flames, falling ineffectively all over the ground in front of the building. After a while the fire had spread lower down in the building and the water started to land on the fire. But the fire by now had got hold on the third floor of the building and the tiny stream of water made no impact.

After a while, the Snorkel machine arrived. When the snorkel machine started pumping, a tiny ineffective jet of water spurted from the hoses, trickling from the hoses. After a few feeble tries, none of which landed near the fire, the crew abandoned the job and lowered the snorkel. By now the whole area over the main entrance was well ablaze and there was smoke coming from the roof over the left side of the building, indicating that the timber under the roof was on fire. More and more fire tenders arrived but all were too small to get a jet of water on the flames. At this point the whole middle tower fell in with timber falling into the street in front of the building.

All the while the Fire Department was doing nothing.

Soon the whole roof over the left side of the building was ablaze. Time and again the snorkel machine operator went up with the snorkel. As soon as the stream of water looked like getting near the flame the hose would pop off at the bottom and the stream of water would become a trickle.

After a while another tender arrived from somewhere and soon started directing a jet of water into the fire on the third floor of the building. All too soon this jet stopped too and I learned that the machine was out of water. Now nothing was being done to fight the fire … Soon the left tower was fully ablaze and it soon collapsed followed shortly afterwards by the whole front section of roof. The interior of the third floor was a raging inferno.

Again and again the snorkel machine team tried to go up but each time they got off the ground the pipe connection would burst. So the crews were willing but did not have the decent equipment to fight the fire.

I wondered whether Mr Haswell was watching this piece of history burn down and what he must be thinking about the lack of equipment for his men to do their job effectively.

What if it had been Natalia Building – 16 storeys high with hundreds of people working in it each day.

Can you imagine the horrendous loss of life that would take place then?

After I left work I went to look at the remains of a once beautiful historical building – looking through broken window panes up through charred remains of flooring boards to the sky above.

And the Msunduzi Fire Department stood by and watched this proud old lady burn to the ground.

- Shortened.

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