Friday, March 15, 2013

Fire leaves two dead, 3000 homeless

Stellenbosch, Western Cape - Close to 3 000 people have been left homeless and two people killed when a devastating fire swept through a large informal settlement at Khayamandi, Stellenbosch, in the early hours of Friday morning.

About 600 homes were razed as strong winds fanned the flames, and firefighters found the remains of two people in destroyed shacks.

Acting Western Cape Premier Anton Bredell said Disaster Management experts had been dispatched to to Stellenbosch.

“Our information is that over 600 shacks were involved, so far. And if you multiply that by four or five people per home, that’s 2 000 to 3 000 people. So, it’s huge, and we are very worried about them.

“We are assisting with accommodation, blankets, food parcels and anything else to meet their immediate needs – especially as it is now raining. We are doing everything possible to ease their discomfort,” Bredell said.

Firefighting efforts were hampered by the maze of walkways between the shacks, furniture which had been piled into streets and strong wind.

“We have estimated that about 600 shacks were destroyed and 2 500 people had been left without a roof over their heads,” Stellenbosch fire chief Lizaan Morta said on Friday morning.

“We were called just after midnight and, when we arrived at the scene, about 50 shacks had already been burnt to the ground.

“We eventually had 12 firefighting units there. We had help from Cape Town, the Winelands Municipality and Drakenstein.

The people worked under very trying conditions.

“We could not gain proper access to the area and the fire was spread very quickly by the wind and the fact that heaps of furniture were lying in the little streets.

“By 5am, we had the fire contained and most of it was out by 6am.”

At 9am, firemen were still damping down the area to prevent smouldering rubble from causing further fires.

Morta said about 600 shacks burn. However, estimates from residents put the figure at between 4 000 and 6 000.

Local journalist Mcebisi Mgudu said several thousand shacks had been destroyed.

“I have lived here all my life. Looking at the extent of it, I would say that at least 6 000 shacks are gone,” said Mgudu.

The fire spread with “an incredible speed”, Mgudu said.

“That is why (one of the victims) could not get away. I suspect he was sleeping and he must have woken up surrounded by fire.”

After a hot, windless day, a strong breeze apparently picked up as the fire started. The cause of fire is not yet known.

Residents showed cellphone footage of flames towering high above silhouettes of people running from the flames.

Residents had carried clothes and furniture into the street. This and the density of the settlement hampered fire services from getting vehicles to scene. Pieces of destroyed heavy-duty hose lay among the burned-out shacks.

The furniture also provided a channel for the fire to spread to formal housing, adjacent to the shacks.

Metres from where one charred body lay behind police tape, residents worked to salvage what they could from the smouldering rubble.

Hammers were used to straighten corrugated iron sheets that had buckled in the heat. Rakes and shovels were used to clear plots, where shacks would be rebuilt.

“It is a terrible tragedy because he (the dead man) was a bright young man, and had a lot of potential.

“But we have to get going because our own futures are uncertain. This uniform is all I have left,” said Christoph Makhalima, who had returned from his night shift at a petrol station to find his home gone and his neighbour dead.

At least five brick houses were also burnt down and a car destroyed.

“When the fire broke out, we thought that we would be safe in a brick house.

“It was not to be; we could not save anything and now the house will have to be demolished and rebuilt,” said Xolsiwa Goqa as she dug through broken tiles and rubble in her mother’s house, searching for car keys.

Outside, Elishia Mdoda, Songezo’s mother, was sitting on a wooden chair weeping quietly.

Andre van der Walt, the councillor for the area, said R50 000 from an emergency fund would be made available to cover the initial costs of the relief effort.

Their initial priority was to provide people with clean drinking water, food and blankets.

“We are in the process of setting up three residents’ committees, which will represent the community in dialogues with a municipality task team,” said Van der Walt, adding that the meetings, monitoring and relief would need to be sustained over the next few weeks.

Church and community halls will be made available to house those who lost their homes.

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