Help in the face of tragedy

2013-11-23 00:00

AS Tongaat reeled from a horror mall collapse this week, its residents emerged as unsung heroes.

From digging through the rubble to pull out injured construction workers, to providing tea and sandwiches to the exhausted search and rescue workers, the townspeople immediately responded to the disaster.

A local restaurateur has even closed his establishment so that police and emergency rescue crew can use it as an operations centre.

On Tuesday, the mall collapsed, killing Zakithi Nxumalo (35) and injuring 29 people. One person is still missing.

The mall is owned by Ravi Jagadasan, the director of Rectangle Investments and the son of “Jay” Singh, a controversial Durban tycoon linked to Gralio Properties.

Search operations carried on at the site yesterday as the Department of Labour and the eThekwini Municipality continued investigations into the cause of the collapse.

One of the first on the scene on Tuesday was grandfather Manny Moonsamy.

He was playing with his grandson when he heard a terrible sound and saw lots of dust. “We went outside and saw what had happened and I was shocked.

“I went onto the scene and we helped as much as we could, giving people water and helping carry the injured. It is indeed a tragic occurrence and I hope the people responsible are brought to book.”

Ashley Govender was also one of the first to arrive at the site.

“I live in the area and heard the sound of the collapse and saw dust shoot into the air.

“We rushed to the site and saw two people on the floor. One man was severely bleeding from his head and was holding his knee. It seemed to be crushed.”

Govender helped drag people away as they feared the entire mall would collapse, crushing those who had been injured in the first wave.

“When emergency services arrived we helped them carry the injured to the ambulances.

“We also helped calm and assure some of the people who were frantic about what they had seen.”

Pastor Leon Soobramoney said he and his friends were very close to the crash site.

“We are a very small community and people just go out there to help when something happens.”

Noel Gabriel, who lives close to the mall, saw the dust in the air and “we knew there could still be workers trapped underneath”.

“You could even hear some of them screaming for help. Assisting them was reflexive. Anyone would have done it.”

Businessman Shiven Maharaj said the vibration and the sound of the tumbling concrete wall could be felt and heard throughout the town. Maharaj said they helped people who were hurt by the rubble and assisted emergency services.

“We then supplied the teams with food and drinks as they were digging through those mounds of brick walls. This is the worst tragedy that has ever hit Tongaat.”

Nolita Mgwebi, a cook at the Cane-Cutters Restaurant adjacent to the site, said: “I was outside putting some rubbish in the dustbin when I heard a noise like thunder. Then I saw people running towards the mall and I joined them.

“I saw people falling onto the grass and into the bushes. They were crying. There were people trapped under concrete and they were crying, saying ‘help, help’.”

Mgwebi said she and others tried to help a man whose legs were badly injured when he was thrown across the railway line as the structure collapsed. “But we couldn’t really help, he was in too much pain. There was nothing we could do and then the ambulances came.”

The Cane-Cutters Restaurant is owned by Rukash and Nirashni Adruthkumar. Currently the display menus are upside down to show the restaurant is closed for business. “I didn’t hear the collapse because of the sound of the extractor fans in the restaurant,” says Rukash. But when he became aware something was happening he went outside.

“It was starting to rain,” he recalls. When the police and emergency services started to arrive they took shelter at the back of the restaurant. “I told them to come inside the restaurant and work from there.” Since then the restaurant has been the official operations centre co-ordinating the search and rescue operation.

“I left that night at 2 am and got back at six in the morning,” says Rukash, who has also fed the emergency personnel. Several local companies and individuals have sponsored food for those working on the site.

Others, like Fiona Moonean, opened their homes to rescue workers, offering hot cups of tea, sandwiches and samoosas. “We helped with water, blankets and anything that we could possibly help with. I must say the community came together and helped out in every possible way.”

For search and rescue workers, paramedics and police, the town’s spirit in the face of disaster was amazing.

Robert McKenzie, an EMRS paramedic, said they were inundated with people who offered to help in even the smallest way.

“We worked for long hours, and the kindness showed to us was truly awesome. This town came out in their numbers to help.”

“Tongaat is a small community and if there is a loss of life it touches everybody,” says Lieutenant Mandy Govender, SAPS Tongaat spokesperson. “There was overwhelming support. People arrived wearing gloves so they could help lift rubble and concrete.”

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