Woman braves flames to save 15

2010-08-02 22:41

Johannesburg – “You could hear them crying and calling out in the darkness. It was pitch dark. I had them lie on sheets and dragged them down the corridor and out the exit.”

Marie Bronkhorst, food manager at the Pieter Wessels Old Age Home in Dunnottar on the East Rand, saved 15 residents on Sunday night and helped to save two more from the burning building.

Eighteen people were killed and one was taken to the Charlotte Maxeke hospital in Johannesburg with serious burn wounds, after the home caught fire at about 20:00.

Bronkhorst has been working at the home for 30 years.

Of the patients she saved, 12 were confined to their beds and three could walk only with assistance.

“There’s a large man in section 3,” she said on Monday.

“I tried to pull him (from the bed), but he was too heavy and I pulled the sheet out from under him. Later I called a fireman and my husband. The fireman picked him up and carried him out.”

However, not everyone was that lucky. Charlene Labuschagne, spokesperson for the national prosecuting authority, heard on Monday morning that her uncle, Stephen Wallace, 57, was one of the 18 who died in the blaze.

Lay in his bed

“He was paralysed so he couldn’t escape the fire. It’s terrible. He lay in his bed and burnt to death.”

The exact cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Apparently it started in a room in section 3 and then soon spread through the ceiling to the rest of the building.

There are rumours that a cigarette might have set a chair on fire, which first ignited the curtains and then the ceiling and roof.

According to Beeld’s information, concerns were already raised about a year ago about the efficiency of the sprinkler system and the fire extinguishers in the building.

A quote of about R80 000 was reportedly presented to the home’s management, but apparently it wasn’t accepted because it was too expensive.

The quote would have included training in the use of fire extinguishers, among other things. As far as Beeld could determine, no fire extinguishers were used on Sunday night.

Louis Gouws, director of the home which is managed and maintained by the Seventh Day Adventist church, was not available for comment about the allegations on Monday night.

He did, however, say on Monday morning that fire drills had been held at the home.

Qedani Mahlangu, Gauteng MEC for health and social development, said at the home that the evacuation of, for instance, frail elderly residents, will receive attention in future.

“They can’t be treated the same way as ordinary people. One can’t expect people who, for example, suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or who are bed-ridden to understand and remember the procedures.”

Flames spread quickly

The building housing the Pieter Wessels Old Age Home was built in 1935 as the headquarters of one of the coal mines at Springs.

It was converted into an old age home more than 30 years ago. The square building has one roof structure, which caused the fire to move quickly within the ceiling and along the roof beams.

Access to the building is mainly through the central main entrance, two emergency exits on the sides of the building, and exits at the back near the dining room and kitchen.