WITH GALLERY: University Corner lift is on fire

Ringing alarms and the smell of burning rubber forced occupants of University Corner to exit the building unexpectedly today.

At three this afternoon, occupants of Wits’ University Corner Building on the corner of Jorissen and Bertha streets were rushed out of the building following a fire in the building. “The alarm rang in our building and we thought nothing of it. But then I went to investigate more and I saw smoke coming out of the lift,” said Juliet White who is an events coordinator at Drama for Life.

Just wait 

White’s colleague Zandile Bekwa then called Wits emergency services to notify them about the smoke. “I called the emergency services and they said we should just wait and not move,” said Bekwa.  She said they waited for a few minutes as the smell of the smoke became more potent and they decided to leave the office.

“We decided to take the stairs down to ground floor because we got a bit nervous when we saw the smoke,” said Bekwa. On their way down stairs the ladies met James Bekes a technician from Britefire Security who told them to exit the building as there had been a fire in one of the three lifts.

[pullquote align=”right”]I think they might be waiting for somebody to get killed before they fix the lifts[/pullquote]

Bekes said a small electrical fire had started in Lift B on the 14th floor due to a faulty control panel, which made the buttons burst into flames. He said they had been called at 3:05 PM and had arrived on scene five minutes later. “I cannot confirm what created the electrical fire but we were called to come handle the issue,” he said.

Last month Wits Vuvuzela reported that faulty lifts in the building were leaving students, staff and tenants frustrated.  Eddy Kekana, technical supervisor for the Property and Infrastructure Management Division (PIMD), said the lifts could only be fixed one lift at a time and that each lift would take up to six months to fix.

“Basically we found out about the fire via word of mouth”

Wits Vuvuzela has since learned that lift B which started the fire is not the lift that was being repaired, but rather the lift students and staff have been using throughout the year.

As technicians attended to the emergency, a group of people waited in the reception area of the Wits Arts Museum. Nick Rumpelt, 3rd year Music student, they were rehearsing on the 8th floor and they were notified about the fire by a classmate who bumped into some people rushing down stairs.

“Basically we found out about the fire via word of mouth, no one official like security or the technician came to notify us,” said Rumpelt.  Carlo Mombelli, famous South African bassist and music teacher at Wits was told not to enter the building when he arrived to give a lesson.

“I think they might be waiting for somebody to get killed before they fix the lifts,” he said. It was only at 5pm after 2 hours that occupants were allowed to re-enter the building.

Only one lift remains functional in the 21 storey building, however students and staff are reluctant to use it following the fire.

Man dies after fire on campus

Suspected foul play has been ruled out as the cause of a fire in the Yale Road staff residential quarters on East Campus on Friday. The fire led to the death of David Sekhoela after he sustained critical injuries.

Sekhoela, a Servest worker,  died in hospital on Saturday September 15.

The cause of the fire is still being investigated.

Most of the Yale Road residents are contract workers at Wits.

Richard Quinton, the responsible engineer at the Property and Infrastructure Management Division, said: “Many unsubstantiated rumours are being spread concerning the circumstances surrounding the case and [we are] considering conflicting statements received from various witnessing parties.”

No answers yet: Grieving Yale Road residents are awaiting the outcome of an investigation into the cause of the fire on Friday September 14.

Some of Sekhoela’s belongings removed from the blaze.

Sekhoela’s former roommate, Paul Skotho, was in Germiston on the night of the fire. He was informed of the incident by phone on Saturday.

He remembered Sekhoela as “a joyful person who enjoyed laughing”.

“He wasn’t very vocal, like if someone made him angry, he would get angry but he would be laughing the next day.”

Chairperson of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) at Wits and Yale Road resident, Richard Sadiki, said Sekhoela had complained that as a contract worker he was not allowed to use just any pedestrian entrance to Wits.

Sadiki said Sekhoela had jokingly said it was better for him to go home because he was a “prisoner” at Wits.

“Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if he had just gone home,” Sadiki said.

Each room in the Yale Road residence traditionally contributes R50 to housemates who have suffered personal tragedies or to the families of those who die. Recently, R1100 was raised for the family of late resident Samson Makhunga. Sadiki said Sekhoela had not contributed to the fund for Makhunga.

Asking for donations for Sekhoela at a house meeting on Tuesday, Sadiki appealed for housemates to give voluntarily “in an African way”.

“Even if he made a mistake when he was alive, we cannot just punish him because he didn’t agree with us.”

Wits acting registrar Nita Lawton-Misra  conveyed condolences on behalf of the university.

“Our deepest sympathies go out to the family, friends and colleagues of Mr Sekhoela, and those who knew him well.”

This tragic incident is being investigated by the SAPS in collaboration with the health and safety manager of the company the victim worked for.

Published in Wits Vuvuzela 25th edition, 21st September 2012