A firefighter fell to his death while battling a blaze on the upper floors of a government building in the Johannesburg CBD on Wednesday morning, September 5, 2018. The city's department of public safety's Twitter account confirmed the death. Picture: ALON SKUY
A firefighter fell to his death while battling a blaze on the upper floors of a government building in the Johannesburg CBD on Wednesday morning, September 5, 2018. The city's department of public safety's Twitter account confirmed the death. Picture: ALON SKUY

Three firefighters have died in a blaze that engulfed the top of a Johannesburg CBD building on Wednesday.

Gauteng MEC for infrastructure development Jacob Mamabolo confirmed that one of the firefighters fell to his death and two others were found inside the building‚ which houses the offices of the Gauteng departments of health, human settlements, and co-operative governance and traditional affairs, on Sauer Street.

He said the building was not up to code.

According to Mamabolo‚ the provincial government received a report on August 27 that indicated that eight government-owned buildings were noncompliant. This included the building in which the fire broke on Wednesday.

The health and human settlements building was 21% compliant‚ and buildings should ideally be above 85% compliant‚ he said.

"It’s very clear to us there is a problem with government buildings in the provincial government‚ so we are not in denial about that point. If we created the impression that we didn’t know‚ that would be incorrect."

Stranded on a ledge

There are further fears that firefighters and civilians trapped on a ledge on the 23rd floor of the building will continue to battle soaring temperatures and strong winds, as they desperately try to stop themselves from slipping off a ledge just 60cm wide.

Earlier‚ police tried to use a helicopter to reach those trapped but have so far failed.

Wynand Engelbrecht, a former Midrand fire station commander who now runs Fire Ops SA — told TimesLIVE that the situation facing those who were stuck would become even more dire as the afternoon progressed.

"Those up-draught winds will fan the fire again‚ as we are seeing. Coupled with the up-draughts‚ the hot air escaping the building from the broken windows will be turning those ledges into a raging inferno. It will be noisy‚ smoky‚ hot‚ with the air filled with choking and poisonous fumes. Those people will be in a desperate situation. They will want to move but they can’t. Any movement will spell certain death. Coupled with these dangers will be the dangers from any windows which explode from the heat.

"It’s a complete disaster‚" he said.

Engelbrecht said from his 40 years of work as a fire fighter he knew the building well.

"That building is a complete fire stack and hazard. It’s a maze of passages and the ledge that they are on is no bigger than 60cm."

He said the winds on the outside would be rapidly building.

"They will be strong enough to easily blow someone off. They will be gaining in strength and by now close to approximately 20km/h. Another problem is that the firemen who are stuck on the ledge will not be able to do anything to keep the civilians from falling. They will be exhausted and barely hanging on for their own lives."

He said rescue operations would be limited.

"Helicopters are too dangerous‚ especially if you look at the force of the down-draught from the rotor blades‚ which will blow those on the ledge off. The height that the people are stuck at means that there is no ladder long enough to reach them. The longest fire ladders which we have in SA are 60m and there are only two of these ladders in the country‚ and they are in Cape Town and Bloemfontein.

"The only way to rescue them will be to rappel from the roof of the building but that presents its own dangers. The rescuers will have to be incredibly careful not to mishandle those they are helping. Any slight mis-movement — caused by those on the ledge panicking — could see them slip and fall. The rescuers will then have to attach themselves to those on the ledge and either lower themselves to a window on a floor that has been declared safe‚ and smash it open and get the person inside‚ or lower themselves to a height that the ladders can reach.

"It is going to be touch and go and time is not on their side."

The cause of the fire remains unknown.

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