No firetruck to save three siblings

Three children all under the age of 12 burned to death in a fire in Standerton in the Lekwa municipality in Mpumalanga in October. Their family believes this could have been avoided if the fire department had responded faster — and had a firetruck.

The municipality, serving 100 000 people, hasn’t had a working firetruck for six months. Firefighters say more than a dozen homes have burned to the ground in that time.

The municipality’s issues were laid bare before the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Committee in Parliament on December 3. It was hauled before the committee after the Mail & Guardian reported how millions had been spent fixing the sewerage system in Standerton — and yet faecal matter was still being pumped into the Vaal River.

During the grilling from Parliamentary members, the municipality could barely respond to questions about its expenditure.

When asked about its firefighting capabilities, municipal manager Gugulethu Mhlongo-Ntshangase said they had approached the national treasury for help and that it had committed to providing them with two trucks.

But treasury told the M&G that it is not aware of this and referred questions back to Lekwa. Municipal spokesperson, Thando Nkosi, failed to respond to extensive questions about putting residents’ lives in jeopardy. Firetrucks that the municipality allegedly paid R500 000 for have broken down and been of no use.

Less than 10km from the municipal buildings, Lerato Tsotetsi goes through her phone every day, looking at the pictures of her three children, whose small graves are marked by grey crosses on a hill. “My eldest child was 11 years old and the other two were eight and six years old,” she says.

Lerato Tsotetsi’s home burnt to the ground, killing her three children. (Dewlyn Verasamy)

October 20 started off as an ordinary Saturday, with her children playing with their cousins. It ended in death.

“In the afternoon I called the two little ones to plait their hair like I always do so they are ready for school on Monday. I remember they went to the mirror to see how pretty I had done their hair.”

The sun was setting and it was getting dark. But there was no electricity. This is not unusual in Lekwa and the heavily pregnant Tsotetsi did what had become routine and lit a candle. She remembers being in the kitchen, when she noticed that the candle wax had dripped off the glass table and onto the plastic-covered floor. She turned around to get something to clean it up, but the fire was too fast and spread across the floor.

“My husband was outside locking up the gate. The children were in the bedrooms. But I could not get to them — the house was engulfed in flames. My husband tried to open the other door and the fire burned his face.”

Family member Maria Molefe says they tried calling the ambulance, police and fire departments. Not a single emergency response unit arrived until after the shack was burned to the ground, with the children trapped inside.

“I could hear them screaming, but there was nothing I could do,” says Molefe. If the emergency services had arrived earlier, she thinks the children’s lives could have been saved.

A picture of Lerato Tsotesti and the her three children (Delwyn Verasamy)

Unbeknownst to the grieving family, the fire department had no truck.

According to John Kock, the chief fire and disaster management officer at Lekwa municipality, their only fire engine had been sent to Marcé Projects in Centurion to be fixed three weeks before the fateful fire. “This matter is not starting here. I started this process way back in 2010, when I arrived here, to say that the fleet of the fire department is ageing. I think the other truck is older than all my grandchildren; it’s a 1982 model. Every year in and out I submit reports (to the municipality) saying that this is the situation here. Nothing has been done about it,” he says.

John Kock, the chief fire and disaster management officer at Lekwa municipality says the issue stems from the use of ageing fire trucks. (Delwyn Verasamy)

In documents seen by the M&G, the municipality requested a quote from Marcé to rent one of its firetrucks at a price of R108 890. This was too much for the municipality.

The M&G understands that the quotation was rejected five days before the fire that gutted the Tsotetsi home and killed their children.

Talking about the number of fires reported to his station, Kock says: “This is very difficult and has affected my health. So much that my sugar is not controlled. My high blood pressure is not controlled. Because I worry a lot about the people who call us saying their house is burning and as a fire chief I have to say sorry.”

He adds that there have been at least more than a dozen fires his team could not respond to in the past six months. “This is very frustrating. Most of my firefighters are staying in the township and can you imagine what their neighbours are saying to them?

“We are not cheque collectors. We are not happy to be in this situation. If I could turn around this situation I would have done that,” says Kock, flailing his arms at his small desk in his stuffy office — trying to not cry.

It was only after the death of the children that the municipality rented two trucks from a company called Merafe Holdings. According to an invoice submitted by Merafe, the company requested the municipality pay more than R500 000.

Kock tells the M&G that one truck never arrived, despite payment being made. The second truck broke down just outside of Heidelberg, over 100km away.

“It was a scrap. I said it must be taken back. The information at hand was that that truck was last licensed in 2016. I am not sure if these guys were trying to make a quick buck or what,” says Kock.

He adds that when the firetruck first broke down it had a problem with gears. The driver pushed it 30km out of town and it was finally fixed by a private mechanic. It was brought back on December 27.

“The first time we used it was in an accident on the R23. They went there and assisted the trapped people. The truck’s brakes were faulty and it had to be towed back. They [Merafe Holdings] took it again and they returned it to us on January 3. But again the brakes gave out and they took it again and it still has not been returned,” adds Kock.

Merafe’s lawyers, Dube Lesley Attorneys confirm that the company leased two vehicles to the municipality and that one had mechanical issues. “On two separate occasions, the fire engine suffered further mechanical failures which prompted our clients to investigate the cause. Upon our client’s proper scrutiny, it became apparent that the mechanical faults were a result of negligence and/or human interference.”

This means that, despite their municipality spending hundreds of thousands of rands on firetrucks, people in Standerton will have to live in fear of fires that they cannot put out.