Survivors of horrific Joburg building fire tell their stories

“I tried to go back to find my wife but the entrance was on fire”

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Omar Arafat holds a photo of his sister Joyce Arafat. Her whereabouts after Thursday’s fire in a building in Johannesburg City Centre are currently unknown. Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro

“Fire! Fire!”

Adam Time, an immigrant from Malawi, remembers hearing neighbours screaming this as he suddenly woke at about 1am on Thursday morning.

His home on the second floor of 80 Albert Street in the centre of Johannesburg, where he and his wife Joyce Arafat have lived for the past year, was filled with smoke.

He woke Joyce and their child. But he could not open the apartment’s door. He asked Joyce to hand him their child so that he could pass it to safety through the window to someone who was standing on the ground. Then he jumped out and asked his wife to follow, but she didn’t come. He remembers seeing his wife staring anxiously out of the window, but that was the last time he saw Joyce.

Exactly how the logistics of getting from the second floor to the ground worked are unclear. Expecting memory to be accurate and descriptions to be coherent in the aftermath of such events is unrealistic.

“I tried to go back to find her but the entrance to the building was on fire and people stopped me from going through,” said Time with tears in his eyes. “All of us should have jumped out of the window together.”

He remembers screaming up to the window for his wife, but there was no sign of her.

Time has watched as bodies of people who died in the fire were taken out of the building. He does not yet know if his wife is alive and in hospital or if she died and if her body has been found.

Omar Arafat is Joyce’s brother. He blames himself for not being able to rescue his sister. He tried to find her before escaping the building through a third floor window. After jumping through the window he only regained consciousness a few hours later, he said.

“Everything happened so fast,” said Omar, who came from Malawi at the end of 2022 to join Joyce. He held a photo of her in his hands.

The death toll at the time of writing is over 70. The building, home mostly to immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, but also a few South Africans, was at one point a shelter for abused women and children.

It was then hijacked in 2021. Many women and children who were sheltered there fled to nearby and safer buildings, some former residents said.

Read the history of 80 Albert Street on News24

The building became a crime hub and fights were a regular occurrence. Residents we spoke to said they were asked to leave the building during Herman Mashaba’s time as mayor, but they remained, paying rents of between R800 to R1,600 a month to the hijackers. Some families shared rooms to ease the burden of paying the rent. While chaos was evident inside the building residents tried to maintain peace inside their homes.

Another survivor, Atoo Makanjira, also from Malawi, said he has lived in the building for four years. He woke in the early hours of the morning but could not get through the entrance. He too managed to escape through a window, on the first floor. Four of his roommates, his friends, are still missing. They shared a room to help pay their R1,600 rental.

“I got hurt when I jumped to the ground. In all the years we have lived in the building nothing like this happened,” he said.

Poshia Sithole, from Ruwa in Zimbabwe, said she came to look for her friends Swaga and Blessing but was not able to find them. She had moved out of the building in early August.

Sithole said while living in the building there was gangsterism and drug dealing, which is why she left.

“Everything that l have perished in the fire, I have nothing left,” said Sam Mandebvu, also from Zimbabwe.

Miriam Mutasa said she was at work when she heard that the building was on fire. She quickly ran home and was lucky enough to rescue her two children.

Great Hope Organisation and Funeral provides burial and repatriation services for dead Zimbabweans. According to the organisation’s Moreboys Munetsi, more than ten Zimbabweans have been reported missing in the fire. He said the organisation was going to donate food, provide the survivors with temporary accommodation, and repatriate Zimbabweans who died in the fire for burial back home.

“We are saddened by the situation and call upon Zimbabweans to reach out and help our fellows in need. We are having to deal with many cases of Zimbabweans who die under sad circumstances. As we speak there are five bodies of Zimbabwean women who were found dead at the end of 2022 but who have not been identified to date,” Munetsi said.

TOPICS:  Fire Housing

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