Joburg firefighters to break ‘respectful silence’ and speak out on colleagues’ deaths

Firefighters are set to break their silence about the circumstances that lead to the deaths of three of their colleagues in a harrowing blaze in downtown Johannesburg three weeks ago.

“The firefighters and their union have kept a respectful silence, only broken at the packed Johannesburg Arena Memorial and at the three gravesites of their fallen comrades,” Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Demawusa) national coordinator Stephen Faulkner said on Wednesday.

But come midday on Thursday, that silence is set to be broken. Demawusa and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) are hosting a press conference at midday in Braamfontein.

“They [the firefighters] are breaking their silence to give a first-hand account of what exactly happened on that fateful day and what needs to be done to prevent any further tragedies of this type,” Faulkner said.

He added: “The firefighters will be revealing who they believe to be responsible for the appalling state of the fire service and the shocking state of affairs that they face every single working day in an effort to protect local communities.”

Times Select previously reported that firefighters were sent into a death trap on September 5 to rescue government officials trapped in the Bank of Lisbon building.

One of the firemen fell to his death, apparently while smashing open a window to escape the smoke and flames. His two colleagues are believed to have been found on the floor close to the window he had fallen from, dead for smoke inhalation.

The Gauteng government became aware of compliance issues with a building a week before the fire. The Infrastructure Development Department said in a report the building only met 21% of the occupational and health standards – while targets are set in excess of 80% to meet compliance levels.

Gauteng government spokesperson Thabo Masebe said anything below 85% meant a building was not supposed to be occupied.

Faulkner said the firefighters also wanted to speak out after the death of two firefighters in a fire in the Johannesburg CBD in 2015 left a bitter taste in their mouths.

The Sowetan reported in 2015 that firefighters hurled insults and booed their bosses at the memorial service for Daniel Zwane, 51, and Michael Letsosa, 34.

The Sunday Times reported in 2015 that Zwane and Letsosa were trapped three storeys underground in the basement. As smoke filled the area, they could not find their way out. Their two-way radios were not working so they could not reach their colleagues outside. Letsosa phoned his colleagues, but got voicemail and left a message asking for help as they were dying.

“Dan tried to use his radio but there was no comms under the concrete. Mike took his breathing apparatus off to call for help on his private phone,” said a senior firefighter at the time who did not wish to be named.

A firefighter at the scene said the situation became chaotic because there was no effective means of communication. Another colleague said the two did not have the required equipment.

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