Cops probe possible arson at century-old children's centre in Bloemfontein

(File, Deon Ferreira, Die Burger)
(File, Deon Ferreira, Die Burger)

Cape Town - A forensics team is investigating possible foul play after a fire at a child and youth care centre in Bloemfontein caused almost R2m in damage, Free State police said on Wednesday.

It was in the early hours of Monday morning, August 14, that Ons Kinderhuis principal Frikkie van Dyk first thought there might be something wrong.

He smelt smoke and thought it was from fires in a nearby field that homeless people usually started to keep warm.

"Later on it had a funny smell and I thought it must be in the house. That was fine but when I went outside it was like thick mist," he told News24.

He saw the storeroom near the security gate had caught fire.

The fire brigade was there within 10 minutes as the security guard had seen the flames and called for help.

"It was so bad. You just stand there and don't know what is going on. You have to wait until they put it out."

Around 100 children in their care, from babies to teenagers, were safe and sound.

The storeroom housed all their reserve items. The items lost in the fire included new school clothes, second-hand furniture and clothes, groceries, bedding and school books.

Van Dyk said sentimental items were also damaged.

"There was smoke damage where we kept all the beauty pageant dresses, drama clothing and backdrops."

'No gas in the storeroom'

When the fire hit, they rushed to move vehicles away from the building.

They thought their school bus was okay but the flames were so hot that it damaged the one side of the bus. A caravan and trailer under the carport were also affected.

The fire happened just a month before the centre was due to celebrate its 104th birthday. It was the oldest welfare centre in Bloemfontein.

Free State police spokesperson, Captain Chaka Marope, said it was not clear what started the fire.

However, they were following up on allegations that someone may have been responsible for igniting it.

Van Dyk would not be drawn into the allegations. He said he trusted the police team to get to the bottom of things.

However, he did confirm that the property had security measures. They had done a headcount at the time of the blaze and all the children were accounted for.

"There was no gas in the storeroom. There was a deep freeze but that wasn't in use."

Van Dyk said their children had adequate food and clothing, but people were still welcome to donate as usual.

He was touched by the response from the city's inhabitants.

"If you look at the Cape when it had the fires, the leaves sprouted after five days. So life goes on. After a year, the mountain is green," he said, beginning to choke up.

"Something good has come out of this and one of them is to see how Bloemfontein has responded. We are so grateful."

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