'I was five minutes too late to help my family' - grieving father recalls Southern Cape blaze

2018-11-02 06:27
The community of Farleigh stands empty after a fire claimed the lives of eight people. (Christina Pitt, News24)

The community of Farleigh stands empty after a fire claimed the lives of eight people. (Christina Pitt, News24)

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Nataniel Oelf will probably remember the morning of October 29 for the rest of his life.

It was when he lost three of his daughters and three nieces, aged between one and 12 years, in the horrific fire of Farleigh in the Southern Cape.

READ: De Vlugt fire reignites, but Southern Cape fires contained

When Oelf left for work on Monday evening, the fire was nothing but a speck on the mountains, far away from their home in the SANParks village.

"Around 23:00 or 00:00, the wind started blowing heavily, so I contacted my uncle who works at SANParks, who was working near the fires in the mountains," Oelf told News24.

"I called him just to check how's the fire and if my place is fine because the direction of the wind was blowing towards Farleigh."

Within 45 minutes of that phone call, the entire village was engulfed in flames.

Rescue

READ: 'We don't know what happened' - relative of Southern Cape fire victims recalls chaotic evacuation

Oelf desperately tried to contact his relatives who lived opposite his home, in an attempt to save his family.

"Their house started burning - the grass and stuff like that. My last call was with my niece who said that our house was burning."

When Oelf finally arrived in Farleigh, his father emerged from the smoke.

He explained that his father and brother had almost killed themselves trying to rescue his children, nieces and his brother's pregnant girlfriend.

"They tried to prevent our house from burning. They tried to evacuate on their own. There was no one in the village from SANParks who gave out warning signs to evacuate. My father and brother had to do all of that alone. It was hectic," he said.

"I was five minutes too late to help them get the family out."

READ: 'We sing to keep our spirits up' - Firefighters continue to battle Southern Cape blaze

The family had returned to the original house instead of running to the so-called evacuation point.

"My girlfriend's mother escaped the house and tried to water the room they were in. They broke a window so my little niece could escape," he explained.

"My sister tried helping - she was found in the kitchen and the other kids and my brother's pregnant girlfriend were found in the room. They tried their utmost best."

God's plan

Oelf said he could not understand why the small family went back to the burning house, but accepted that it was all part of God's plan.

"It could be God that led them to that house or it could've been something else that forced them to go into that house, but my father instructed them to go up the road," he said.

"It happened very, very quickly. There was nothing I could do because I was about five minutes too late."

Oelf was only able to inspect the house once the flames had subsided.

"When I went up there I found what I could see - four bodies. Forensics [personnel] and police escorted us out because it was a scene we couldn't enter," Oelf said.

Only three members of the trapped family survived the horrific fire - his girlfriend’s mother and his sister's daughter.

Oelf said that the family had just identified the remains and were focusing on giving their loved ones a dignified send-off.

"I'm quite surprised at my strength. I'm very strong. My mind is aware of their passing on but my heart is still fine. I'm okay," the grieving father said.

"I know they're gone but I'm taking it day by day. Everyone in the family - we're together. We are getting support from all the people - prayers."

While the names of the deceased are known to News24, Oelf said that he was shocked that the police had distributed the names as the family had not given consent.

*This story has been updated.

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