City landmark gutted

2016-12-09 10:57
Firefighters battle a blaze at Pietermaritzburg’s 154-year-old former prison.

Firefighters battle a blaze at Pietermaritzburg’s 154-year-old former prison. (Amil Umraw)

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A lightning strike may be the cause of a 154-year-old Pietermaritzburg landmark being gutted by a freak blaze on Thursday.

The inferno landed three firefighters in hospital, two of whom were struck down by a collapsing staircase, while the other was treated for dehydration.

By 6 pm on Thursday, almost three hours after the fire started, parts of the former prison Block C roof had begun caving in.

Firefighters believed the national monument, which is one of the city’s oldest standing buildings, would be totally destroyed before the fire could be extinguished. One firefighter said it may take up to two days before the structure can be secured completely.

The block held national icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Moses Mabhida.

When The Witness arrived at the prison on Thursday, firefighters were already scrambling to subdue the flames, which had resulted in a black plume of smoke — that could be seen across most of the city — soaring into the sky.

By the time the paper went to print last night firefighters were still battling the blaze.

Zime Nxumalo, a tour guide at the prison’s museum, said she was huddled under a shelter with her colleagues, waiting for the rain to subside, when a bolt of lightning struck the former cell block in front of them.

“I saw two lightning bolts but I did not think that they struck the building across from us,” she said.

Startled, Nxumalo said they tried to make their way back into the museum when she saw a “big black cloud” over the Block C building.

“It did not hit me instantly that it may be smoke from a fire. I walked closer and saw flames coming out of the window and just went into panic mode,” she said.

Nxumalo called the fire department, who she says arrived within minutes, but the firefighters were unable to get their truck through the prison’s arched entrance gate.

CEO of the Old Prison and Project Gateway, the Reverend Jabu Mnculwane, said he was in his office when he heard his secretary screaming.

“Mahatma Gandhi’s original cell is in that building and I am pretty sure it is now ruined. We also had plans of revamping the building and turning it into an art gallery next year,” said Mnculwane.

The block was currently being used as a storage facility where appliances, equipment, old books and furniture were stockpiled.

A source said firefighters initially rushed into the building to secure gas cannisters that could have exploded if the temperature in the rooms they were stored in was not contained.

The fire could be seen rising from the roof, which eventually began to cave in. The trusses, seared mostly into ash, began plummeting into the courtyard outside the block.

Flames could be seen gushing out from the windows and within an hour of The Witness’ arrival, bricks from the inner walls could be heard falling.

“The walls have began to swell in certain parts so the structural integrity of the building is now compromised. The fire spread rapidly because of all the desks, books, cupboards and other things hoarded inside,” the source said.

Bystanders were moved off the premises when the smoke emanating from the fire consumed the entire courtyard.

Firefighters then tackled the fire from within the prison’s courtyard as well as from the road.

Bystanders grouped together as the firetrucks’ ladders were raised and firemen began to quell the flames from above.

Speaking on behalf of Amafa Heritage KZN, Ros Devereux said she is concerned about the historically significant information that went up in smoke on Thursday.

“They say people were hanged in that building. It is historically important,” Devereux said.

“The building was built strong and has stern walls. I have no doubt that it can be resurrected. My concern though is if the owners, since they are a non-government organisation, will afford to restore it.”

Project Gateway deputy chairperson Pastor Thabiso Moeti, who was spotted staring at the flames from a safe distance, said he lost some of his furniture and his entire library in the fire.

“I have lost my lifetime collection of books. I cannot even count how many books were stored in there. Boxes and boxes, which are all irreplaceable,” he said Moeti.

History of the Old Prison

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  fire

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