Facing fire: Tragedy at an old age home

By admin
18 August 2014

Rescue personnel endure terrible conditions to save victims from a raging fire at an old age home.

Even from over a kilometre away, the response teams could see the brightness of the fire burning in the night sky. They could hear the sounds of people screaming and calling out for loved ones as they set out to fight the blaze. The fire had started in the frail care unit of Peter Wessel Old Age Home in Dunnotter, Nigel, but had spread in two different directions. Both the front of the building, and deeper into the foyer and passages were in flames – with the smoke and heat creating one massive and deadly inferno.

With two charged fire hoses, the first team of three fire fighters from the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality Emergency Services went into the building sweeping in circles to fight the fire. In a situation like this, fire can come at you from all directions instantaneously. The space is three dimensional – and the fire snakes along walls, floors and ceilings. The team had to move deeper into the pit of fire, breaking down doors, moving in open spaces, shouting and looking for victims. As the back-up crews arrived, the building was completely engulfed by flames. Inside, visibility was best described as pitch black with no electricity to shed light. Patients were being passed through windows while other fire fighters broke down doors to get through, carrying frail patients on their shoulders or pulling them out on mattresses. Most of the patients were bedridden and some of them were mentally handicapped. All were elderly and terrified. In most cases, those in a fire can run out to safety, but sick and elderly people unfortunately cannot run or move from danger as quickly. As a result, the paramedics had to go as deep into the flames and heat as their bodies allowed them to find victims.

There was no doubt that this was a disaster on an epic scale

Many patients were lying outside, being attended to by medical personnel. All the while, the fire raged on throughout the many different sections of the building.

Many more patients were still trapped inside the building. Fire fighters were breaking windows, cutting burglar bars and climbing through to go and rescue people.

With all the back and forth – the breathing apparatus (BA) sets were soon empty. Normally an apparatus lasts for the duration of a structural fire but due to all the running and physical demands, the fire fighters used up their BA sets far quicker.

There was simply no time to wait for refilled breathing apparatus to arrive, so the fire fighters took turns to go in and attack the fire, with colleagues crawling in to take over from the first one who would crawl out for fresh air.

The fire was classified as a “hot fire” because the building, being old, had solid wood rafters and ceiling material that burnt hot, while the oxygen pipes running throughout the building meant that the fire spread rapidly. And all the while there was the threat of explosion due to the LPG gas.

There was no doubt that this was a disaster on an epic scale.

Paramedics were treating people for burns and smoke inhalation in a triage area at the back of the building, and three Priority One patients suffering from severe burn wounds were flown by air ambulance to hospitals.

Ambulances to local hospitals transported many more as quickly as possible. Medical fluids, resuscitation drugs and other items were all used up because of the high number of patients they had to tend to.

In a mighty display of team effort, the different rescue teams came together as one and worked through the night.

Personnel worked according to protocol, but because of the nature of the incident they had to work outside of these parameters too. For example, there was no time to package the patients nicely before removal – it was a matter of ‘scoop and go’. The risks of the fire itself, possible explosion and the building collapsing were simply too great to waste even seconds.

Fighting so many odds, the teams did everything humanly possible that night, saving 99 patients from the fire. Sadly, 18 patients perished, including those that passed on afterwards in hospital. It could have been many more, had it not been for the remarkable bravery and persistence of the rescue personnel, who had to endure so much on that tragic night.

Guardians: Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality Emergency Services, ER24, Gauteng Provincial Government EMS, Life Health Care, Maponya 911 Rescue, Netcare 911

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