The slow reaction to complaints from workers and a departmental study, both emphasising the poor safety conditions of the Gauteng provincial department of health offices, led to three unnecessary deaths yesterday.
The fire at the 23-storey government building in the CBD, which houses the Bank of Lisbon and the department of health, was still raging on Thursday morning and had spread to other parts.
Johannesburg Emergency Services spokesperson Nana Radebe told 702 Talk Radio early Thursday morning that the fire had spread from the top floors to the 16th floor and that firefighters had left the building because the “water pressure was low”.
She said firefighting efforts would resume later in the morning.
Three firefighters died and 13 employees of the Gauteng department of health have been admitted to hospital for smoke inhalation following a raging blaze on the upper floors of the building in the Johannesburg CBD.
One of the firefighters died after falling from the upper floors of the 23-storey building at about 11am following an explosion in one of the offices.
Gauteng provincial spokesperson Thabo Masebe said the government had instituted an investigation into the safety of the building, in reaction to complaints from workers.
Masebe said work had started on the building after the findings of a study conducted by the department of infrastructure development on all government buildings.
He said the results, released on Monday last week, stated that the building, which served as a working place for three departments – health, corporate governance and human settlements – failed dismally with 21% compliance to the required safety standards.
Denosa said in a statement that union members had been complaining about the poor conditions at the building for a long time, without response from anyone in government.
Denosa provincial chairperson Simphiwe Gada said: “Gauteng health and infrastructure must take the blame for these deaths as they could have been avoided if they took the safety of the employees seriously.
“As recently as Friday, organised labour warned the employer on this urgent matter at the multilateral meeting where we asked to be issued with the occupational health and safety certificate of the building.
“This was because the department had reneged on an earlier commitment to move all employees working at the provincial department of health to a safer building.”
He also said the fire only breaking out on the 23rd floor was highly suspicious, because that is where the provincial government’s law department, which was conducting an investigation on corruption, was located.
Masebe said it was still not clear what had caused the fire but that investigations would continue.
‘What I saw of Joburg blaze’
The Citizen photographer Refilwe Modise’s eyewitness account of yesterday’s fire: “Employees of the Gauteng departments of health and human settlement try to contain their shock as they stand behind the yellow and blue police tape, occasionally lifting it to make room for ambulances rushing their colleagues to nearby hospitals for medical attention.
“A designated fire marshall, one of the several who led workers safely out of the burning building, gives instructions over a bull horn for staff to head to the assembly point at the nearby library gardens for roll call.
“A few hundred metres away, glass and debris fall from above, landing near the covered body of a firefighter who slipped and fell to his death.
“His helmet and rocks hold down the silver foil covering his body.
“A police helicopter circles the burning building before making its first attempt at rescuing staff on the roof.
“EMS workers hear of a woman who was taken to Luthuli House after she collapsed due to smoke inhalation.”