Fireman survives 6-floor fall into pit of flames

2013-12-05 08:49
KwaZulu-Natal fireman Malusi Mncube, who survived a six-storey fall into a disused lift shaft in Durban. (The Witness)

KwaZulu-Natal fireman Malusi Mncube, who survived a six-storey fall into a disused lift shaft in Durban. (The Witness)

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Rowan Philip, The Witness

Durban - A Durban fireman not only fell six storeys on Wednesday morning - he fell into a hellish pit, featuring an inferno, two deadly metal spikes, a dead body, and no means of escape.

Yet - in what the commander on scene called “a one-in-a-million survival, a miracle” - fireman Malusi Mncube, from Pietermaritzburg, survived both the 15-metre fall, fire and three hours trapped inside the pit with nothing but a bruised hip.

The drama played out at a disused lift shaft outside the Durban bus terminal shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning, when a homeless man died as a result of injuries from a fall and smoke inhalation. The man’s name has not been released, and his age was given as “approximately 40”.

During an effort to rescue the man after he fell through a hole and down the shaft, Mncube fell through the same hole, triggering a second rescue effort by his colleagues.


Justin Bateman, a station chief with eThekwini Fire and Rescue, who supervised Mncube’s rescue, told The Witness: “I’m gobsmacked - he fell six storeys onto a bed of burning debris in a sealed concrete tube, and he’s basically okay. I could feel the heat standing six floors above. And anyway, if he didn’t happen to have breathing apparatus with him, he would not have survived 10 minutes down there - the smoke was trapped thick in that tube.”

Bateman said the “incredible” sequence of events were triggered when the victim fell through the floor of the machine room on the sixth floor of the station’s abandoned lift shaft.

He and another man had been living in the three-by-four-metre room, after metal doors from the adjoining stairwell had been pried open.

Bateman said the man landed on a layer of refuse at the base of the lift shaft.

However, seeing nothing but pitch darkness in the hole left behind, the room-mate reportedly set a piece of cardboard on fire and dropped it through the hole in an effort to see how far his friend had fallen.


- The burning cardboard ignited the pile of garbage - even as the man lying on it was heard to still be alive, and moaning loudly;

- After a five-man fire department team arrived on scene, Mncube - one of only two firemen on scene who were wearing breathing apparatus - found the hole on the sixth floor;

- While showing Bateman the hole, Mncube slipped and fell through - “yelling all the way down” until he slammed into the same pile of garbage, now burning fiercely, and narrowly missing two sharp metal poles;

- Bateman flooded the base of the sealed lift shaft with a firehose pointed through the hole as Mncube lay helpless among the flames;

- With only 10 minutes of oxygen remaining in the stricken fireman’s breathing tank - and smoke filling the chamber - Batemen ordered back-up breathing tanks to be rushed from the station, and lowered to Mncube on a rope;

- When desperate efforts to break through the side of the life shaft with a jack hammer failed, Bateman tied a rope “rescue rig”, and fireman Tyrell Bossinger abseiled to Mncube through the smoke to complete the rescue.

'Very, very fortunate'

“I have never seen such relief as I saw in Malusi’s eyeballs as he came up,” said Bateman. “He was walking gingerly, and he was checked out at hospital, but he was okay. He was very thankful to the guys.”

Mark te Water, chief of fire for eThekwini, said “This guy was very, very fortunate, and it was a great effort by his colleagues to get him safely out. But it's also sad that there was a loss of life in this incident. Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that firemen increasingly face with urban decay.”

Mncube is currently on injury leave, and was not available for comment.

Bateman said the victim’s body was also recovered using the rope rescue system.

Bateman was also on the scene last year when Gillitts fireman Vincent Mxele fell 30 metres down a cliff in Winston Park while battling a veld fire - and only suffered a broken leg.

Read more on:    durban  |  search and rescue  |  fires  |  good news

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