Snuffed out by flames

While there are some irrefutable facts about the fire that swept through Hangberg last week, others are largely dependent on who you talk to.

What can be said for certain is that two people, Daniel Williams, 46, and 15-year-old Veron Fredericks, died in the fire that destroyed more than 20 homes in the early hours on Friday October 19.

While the City of Cape Town says the exact cause of the fire is yet to be established, several sources, including Daniel’s brother, Albert, Veron’s mother, Desiree, as well as neighbours, have confirmed the fire broke out in a small room located on the property Albert shares with his partner, Hadley Newman. Daniel was also living in a room on this property.

The Sentinel can also confirm that had it not been for the swift actions of one of the Williams’s neighbours, Arthur September, who ran from house to house waking people up alerting them to the fire, the death toll could have been much higher.

Where events become less clear is what happened in the small room to spark the fire that eventually spread to just below Die Sloot, where young Veron, unbeknownst to his mother, was sleeping.

According to Albert, he and Mr Newman had agreed to take in a woman, Chanelle Solomon, 38, who is undergoing a drug rehabilitation programme at Hangberg-based non-profit Hout Bay Cares and set her up in the small room on their property.

He said they were intending to repair the room and install lighting before Ms Solomon moved in.

“This room was run-down, and it was regularly used as a smokers’ hot spot.

“A lot of drug addicts were familiar with that spot, so we actually wanted to break it down and rebuild it,” Albert said.

On Thursday October 18, the men waited for Ms Solomon to arrive, but they said she had not done so by the time they had gone to sleep.

However, according to Albert, Ms Solomon later told them she had arrived at 11pm and entered the small room. While she admitted to lighting a candle, she claimed to have put it out before she went to sleep. She then woke up with “flames all around her”, although her bed was not on fire.

Initially, this version of events was accepted by Albert and Mr Newman. However, as the Sentinel was corroborating their story with Hout Bay Cares director Zulfa October and Ms Solomon, the men arrived at the NPO’s premises demanding answers from Ms Solomon, claiming they had just been told by a neighbour that she had been smoking drugs in the small room with her two siblings.

An altercation ensued, forcing Ms October to intervene. Ms Solomon stood by her story, although she admitted she had asked her brother to come to the small room to “make the door right” as it had been loose.

“But I never saw my brother or my sister that night before I went to sleep,” she said, adding that she had put out the candle and nipped a cigarette she had been smoking before she went to bed.

In the initial interview with the Sentinel, Albert said there was some suspicion that a man who had previously occupied the small room might have set fire to it, unhappy that there was a new tenant on the property. However, there was no proof to this effect.

Albert and Mr Newman said they had good relationships with their neighbours and were woken to shouting from Mr September warning them to get out of their room. “When I saw the flames, I knew that if Daniel wasn’t out already, he wouldn’t have made it,” Albert said. “It’s so tragic because Daniel was actually going to be moving out at the end of the month.”

A distraught Desiree Fredericks said she was not even aware that Veron was at home when the fire razed her home.

Ms Fredericks had seen him at a family member’s home on Thursday night, where she had told him to return to their house to load electricity. When she returned home after 10pm, Veron was not at home.

On two occasions she had gone to his room, once to place a bucket on the floor to collect water from the leaking roof, and saw he was still not home. She then decided to go to sleep.

She was woken by shouting when the fire broke out at 2am on Friday, and immediately went across the pathway to her eldest son’s home.

“We were watching the fire coming nearer and nearer my place. We saw the whole place go up. Veron’s room was the last to go up.

“After about an hour my son came to me and said, ‘There’s a body in your place.’ He (Veron) obviously came in silently.”

Ms Fredericks said in the week prior to the fire, Veron had been particularly quiet, which had concerned her.

“I have talked to his friends, and one of them told me that Veron had told him that he had had a dream that he burnt in a room. Another friend told me that he used to tell him about not wanting to die in a fire like that family did in 2015,” she said, referering to the Hangberg shack fire in which Raymond Martin, his wife Sophia de Wee, and their sons Monray and Ramone, died.

“Because of this, and because I went twice into his room and he wasn’t there, I blame no one for his death. If this is the way God intended, then it is God’s way.”

Mr September, who is being hailed as a hero by his neighbours, said he had heard a scream at the bottom of Albert and Mr Newman’s property.

“At first I thought someone was being beaten. Then I saw flames coming out. I had to run around waking up my neighbours. I went around swearing, ‘Get the f**k out of your houses!’ I was pounding on the doors,” he said.

The affected area is just below the fire break in Hangberg.

City fire chief Ian Schnetler said it was difficult to maintain a gap between structures as well as keep residents out of the fire break. “Continuous building in the fire break compromises the fire break itself and exposes the residents, (some) who are building there illegally, to severe danger from fires. The fire hazard applies both to fires that start in the settlement as well as from fires originating in the mountain surrounding them,” he said.