Terror in the night


She’d put on her pyjamas and was about to get into bed when she smelt fire. She opened her bedroom door to find the passage filled with smoke. Then she heard people screaming and realised something was seriously wrong. She had to get out of the burning building fast.

Irene van den Bergh (94) was one of the 102 residents of Piet-er Wessels old-age home in Dunnottar between Nigel and Springs on the East Rand which was gutted by fire on 1 August. Twenty two people have died.

It’s a miracle she’s alive, Irene says. “God has protected me for 94 years and on Sunday night he did it again.”

She firmly believes the flames haven’t destroyed her room. “There are five Bibles in my cupboard. God wouldn’t let that burn, surely?”

But the building that was the last refuge for Irene and her fellow residents lies in ruins. The fire started around 8.30 pm, apparently in one of the rooms, and spread quickly. Forensic experts are still investigating the cause.

At the Zanele Mbeki Frail Care Centre, where the survivors of the disaster have been temporarily moved after their night in the church hall, Hester Labuschagne - in her late seventies - says she can’t close her eyes, “because all I see are pictures of flames”.

Outside the care centre confused Petro Potgieter (68) wanders about. Her eyes are red from crying. “I shouldn’t be alive,” she says. “I should have died right there in the flames.”

At the height of the crisis she was the heroine who ran into the burning building four times to push out invalids in wheelchairs. “Oh, it was nothing,” she says modestly. She wanted to go back inside a fifth time but someone stopped her.

It’s the second time in three months she has experienced such a nightmare: First there was a fire in her flat in Nigel. Just a month after she moved into the home she had to go through it all again. “I can’t sleep. When I close my eyes I see it all again, over and over.’’

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