The City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue services faced a string of challenges earlier this week, when they attended to yet another fire in Imizamo Yethu.
In addition to a pregnant woman dying in the fire, firefighters also had to contend with being harassed by locals, theft out of the fire trucks and even difficulty locating the water hydrant.
Rescue teams from Hout Bay, Wynberg, Masiphumele and Constantia responded to the blaze in Sisulu Street, where eight shacks and one house was destroyed, resulting in 31 people being displaced.
Ward councillor Roberto Quintas said: “It must be stated firstly that I am profoundly sorry for the loss of life of the woman and her unborn child.
“It is also with great regret that I must condemn in the strongest possible terms the actions of community members who are alleged to have interfered with firemen, harassing them whilst in the line of duty.”
Mr Quintas added that some locals even broke into rescue vehicles and stole equipment during the operation.
Another headache for rescuers was trying to locate fire hydrants which were not damaged or built over.
“The City has regularly had to clamp down on illegal building in the Hout Bay area, something which there is often outrage and much disturbance and criticism, yet in instances such as these, when fire hyrdrants and water mains can’t be found due to being built over by structures, the reason for demolitions become clear and should be seen as necessary,” Mr Quintas explained.
He confirmed that further services were deployed by the City to assist with clearing, relief and repairs.
IY resident, Ivan Johnstone, saw his one-bedroom shack go up in flames after hearing the screams for help from a nearby shack that he was visiting.
Mr Johnstone said he rushed towards his home, but it was too late when he arrived.
“The flames were already all the way through the house and they were coming out the window. People were trying, but in these communities, the fire spreads very quickly,” he said.
Another local, who asked to remain anonymous, said there were “thieves” in the community who saw the fires as an “opportunity”.
“Why steal a piece of equipment that can help save somebody’s life? These thieves just don’t care. One day they will not come because of this problem and then what are our people going to do?”
Community Crime Prevention (CCP) in Hout Bay also took to their Facebook to share their dismay at the way things unfolded during the latest fire.
In their post, CCP said: “We think it is the perfect time to highlight some serious issues regarding the help they give and the flack they receive.”
They explained that the first problem was finding a hydrant which actually worked and then discovered that two more hydrants were beneath mortar structures and brick, forcing fire and rescue services to bring water from outside the area.
CCP also mentioned that the narrow roads of IY were also blocked with cars and onlookers who hamped access and then also “threaten the guys that are trying to help”.
The post read: “Can you imagine the frustration of trying to help but being hampered?”
CCP also highlighted the theft from the rescue vehicles and asked: “How are you meant to work like this?”
“Fire and rescue guys are on the whole are selfless servants who put their lives on the line to help save lives first and this is how they get treated,” CCP said.
Due to Covid-19 protocols, the City confirmed that they were not able to offer accommodation at halls and that Sassa had been asked to provide relief in terms of food parcels.
Local NGO, Thula Thula Hout Bay, was on scene to also offer relief to the victims and said it was one of their most difficult efforts to date.
Joanne Chemaly, co-founder of Thula Thula Hout Bay, said their efforts were particularly “challenging and emotional” after they learnt about the loss of the mother and her unborn child.
“When we arrived at the scene on Monday morning, around 7am, there was such a tragic and sombre mood. A young woman lay on a pile of iron sheets that was her home, hugging a small blanket around her shoulders and just sobbed and sobbed,” Ms Chemaly said.
“It was heartbreaking to see.”
She added that as the news of the fire spread throughout the community, many visited the affected area in search of their loved ones.
“More and more people started gathering and sobbing. Such an unnecessary loss,” Ms Chemaly said.
Thula Thula Hout Bay continued by offering their support, offering basic relief items such as toiletries, groceries, bedding, clothing, two plate stoves and even kettles.
“We provided the immediate relief items we offer to all fire victims, but it can never make up for what has been lost and for that, we send our deepest condolences to the family, friends and neighbours,” Ms Chemaly sadly said.
The City’s Fire and Rescue Service was not available to comment on the incident by the time this story was published.