He still can’t believe it. An out-of-control lift speeding towards the 26th floor, and a woman’s chilling screams haunt his dreams.
When Zwelethu Mambane took the lift to the ground floor of his Johannesburg apartment building one morning, he didn’t think he’d be wheeled into hospital hours later. Instead of going down, something caused the lift to shoot upwards.
As it came to a halt on the top floor of the high-rise complex in Doornfontein, he hit his head and blacked out for a few minutes. When he regained consciousness he heard screams, and realised it was the woman who was in the lift with him.
“She was screaming, ‘I’m dying, can you help me,’ ” he recalls. Her forehead was bleeding. Zwelethu (26) felt dazed. When he looked around he could see the damage was bad. Glass was everywhere and the button control panel had broken off the wall – they had no way to call for help. It was a Sunday and he was scared they wouldn’t make it out alive.
Then he saw a small opening on the right – a gap leading into the lift shaft. This was their only hope, he thought, and so, in an act of incredible bravery, the PR and communications executive squeezed through the hole.
It was terrifying, he says. Once he was out, he saw the other lifts moving up and down and nothing else but a long, dark pit beneath him. Without anything to hold onto, he walked along the thin metal beam towards the shaft but realised there was no way out.
“I had to sit while my feet dangled in the air. I could see the ground.” He could hear the woman screaming, but he could do nothing so he joined her in crying out for help. He felt very relieved as he heard a response.
Eugene Magogodela (32) responded. He was in his 26th-floor-apartment when the lift crashed. “I was with my wife when I heard a bang. The windows shook,” he tells us. He says after speaking to Zwelethu he used a bin to keep the doors of the middle lift open.
Zwelethu had edged away from the crashed lift to await help and Eugene wanted to be sure the lift below him remained stationary. He also called Johannesburg emergency services and spoke to Zwelethu until a technician arrived. Zwelethu also tried to reassure the woman that help was coming soon.
Her screams were relentless, he says. He estimates he waited about 40 minutes before a technician arrived. “He opened the door on the 26th floor, looked up at me and was even scared himself that I was sitting there,” he says. “I told him to control the lift and raise it a little so I could jump on its roof and then he could bring it to the 26th floor, for me to get out.”
Once he was out, Eugene brought him ice for the pain in his chest and head. Meanwhile, ER24 attended to the woman, believed to be in her 40s.
Sadly, she suffered critical head injuries and died on the scene. Zwelethu says he is lucky to be alive. Other than bruised ribs, he’s physically fine but the mental scars will take time to heal.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Her screams still haunt him. “I saw someone die. What comes back again and again is the screaming,” Zwelethu says, sitting on his bed in the flat he shares with his pregnant partner, Pretty Macina (24). Since the accident he’s been too scared to use the lifts and climbs the stairs to and from his flat. He asked the building’s owner, Africa Housing Company (AFHCO), to move him to the building next door, which it also owns. “That building has about four floors,” he says.
He’s had trouble with the lifts before. They moved into the block in March and he was once stuck in one for about 30 minutes. Then there was the time the lift stopped in the middle of the doorway, which made it difficult for him and his fiancée to climb out. “We just returned to the 14th floor,” he says.
Another tenant, Rejoyce Raliwedza, tells us she’d also been stuck in one of the lifts for about 30 minutes. “It was scary,” she says. She’s a student and has lived in the building for over a year but, as she lives on the 26th floor, she has no choice but to keep taking the lift.
Since the accident, three of the lifts, including the one that crashed, are out of service while they undergo maintenance. Although residents say the building’s lifts have been an ongoing problem, AFHCO insists they comply with safety standards and that previous complaints were about minor glitches.
AFHCO brand manager Nomfundo Mwelase says a comprehensive maintenance contract is in place, which includes monthly checks, and that corrective maintenance is undertaken as needed. And they “undergo a 24-month inspection by an independent specialist lift consultant as required”. She says that the last safety inspection was in February and the lifts were “certified as being fully compliant”.
But for Zwelethu this is small comfort. He’s so traumatised he can’t imagine ever using the building’s lifts again. “I don’t know, maybe in future, but right now I can’t,” he says. “It’s like you’ve escaped death so you’re not sure when it will happen again.”