Chisom Jenniffer Okoye
4 minute read
29 Sep 2018
6:10 am

Born a firefighter, growing into a hero

Chisom Jenniffer Okoye

'If you love your job so much and you give it your all to the point where you are willing to get seriously hurt or die, it is a calling.'

Joburg firefighter Tebogo Khoduga, 28 September 2018. Picture: Neil McCartney

And, as a firefighter, you are never really off duty. So earlier this month he got a call at the Central Fire Station in Marshalltown in Johannesburg to go and help his colleagues trapped by fire and smoke on the 23rd floor of the Bank of Lisbon building in downtown Joburg.

He didn’t hesitate, although he was off duty, and rushed to their aid. They would have done the same for him.

Being a firefighter, he says, is not just a career but a calling. Born and raised in Benoni, east of Johannesburg, Khoduga was set on becoming a civil engineer, but his dream was shattered after high school when his parents could not afford to pay for his tertiary education.

He recalls that his municipality at the time (Greater Benoni) was advertising opportunities for bursaries within the fire department and he decided to apply, seeing it as an opportunity to get work.

During the training in 2003, he fell in love with the job and later landed a job as a firefighter in the City of Joburg in 2006.

The day they knocked on his door at the fire station to tell him his colleagues were dying in the burning building, he knew he had to help in any way he could.

When he got to the scene, he found several fire department officers standing around “strategising”. He says: “The most hurtful part was seeing (these) officers standing outside doing nothing but us firefighters, who were not even on duty, were going in there to rescue our team.”

Despite the danger, he and four other firefighters decided to go to the 23rd floor of the building where their colleagues were trapped.

After climbing up the stairway and searching for them in darkness and excruciating heat, he found them standing outside a window on the smallest piece of concrete, all in a frantic state.

Firefighters continue to battle the fire in the Department of Healt building in the Johannesburg CBD for the second day, 6 September 2018. Picture: Neil McCartney

He says that leading his colleagues out of the building to safety was one of the most rewarding things he has done in the 12 years he has worked as a firefighter.

But, at the same time, it was also the most tragic experience seeing three of his peers, who were like family to him, dying in the fire.

He has seen children jumping from burning buildings and bodies burnt beyond recognition, but he will never forget this day because his “family” were the victims … and it could so easily have been him.

“I only called my mom 10 hours after the incident. I didn’t want to speak to her because I knew she was watching TV and that she had seen me.

“My sisters were also calling me and telling me that my mother was crying.

“When I called my mom, she calmed down but she told me not to go back to that job.

“Even my fiancé said I should not return, but I have to because it is our only source of income and age is catching up with me. If I leave, who will provide for them and my three children?”

He says although he had a counselling session to help deal with the trauma, he still gets flashbacks of that day.

He tries his best to be surrounded by people so he isn’t left alone to think about it.

He struggles to sleep at night because of the nightmares.

Despite all this, he is still passionate about his job.

Joburg firefighter Tebogo Khoduga, 28 September 2018. Picture: Neil McCartney

“This job is very dangerous. You go into a fire not knowing whether you will come back.

“Before you become a firefighter, you make an oath that you will give yourself to the community and that you will save lives, properties and the environment.

“You also pray that God will take care of your family when you are gone.

“I hear people just calling this job a career. To me, it is not a career. I believe this job is a calling because not everyone can do it.

“If you love your job so much and you give it your all to the point where you are willing to get seriously hurt or die, it is a calling,” says Khoduga.

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