South Africa

Power Park building collapse: Desperate need to survive leads to deaths

By Bheki C. Simelane 30 June 2014

The Power Park building collapse has claimed the lives of three people as rescue workers, with the help of engineers, prepare for an extensive search for more casualties scheduled to take place on Monday. By BHEKI C. SIMELANE.

Rescue workers have retrieved three bodies from the rubble in the

Power Park building collapse, while another five people were rescued alive and taken to hospital. But uncertainty remains as to the exact number of people still trapped after the collapse that occurred on Wednesday.

The number of people trapped was initially thought to have been about 15. All five survivors were taken to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. The building, an old power station behind the landmark Orlando towers, collapsed when men tried to remove metal and cables, compromising the building’s structural integrity.

One survivor’s arm had to be amputated while he was still trapped beneath the rubble because rescue workers feared a secondary collapse on Thursday morning. Sniffer dogs were brought in with the hope of rescuing more trapped survivors. It is believed the metal and cables were removed from the building to be sold as scrap.

Emmanuel Vele, an unemployed 20 year old who arrived in South Africa from Mozambique in 2009, told the Daily Maverick he had been stealing metal from the building for the past three years.

“We prefer to sustain ourselves by stealing the metal because it’s a viable option to robbing people. If I did not steal the metal I’d most probably be involved in crime and that’s risky,” Vele said.

Emergency services received an initial call from one of the suspected thieves as he and the rest the group stared death in the face. Johannesburg emergency services media liaison officer, Nana Radebe, confirmed that three people had died in the accident.

“On Monday we will have a meeting with engineers with a view to establishing ways to get to the bottom of the rubble from which more bodies could still be recovered,” Radebe said.

Another suspected thief, 32-year-old Edison Mathonsi, also from Mozambique, said stealing metal and cables is his only option. Mathonsi, an Orlando resident, said he made up to R300 from the sale of the metal on a good day.

“Sometimes we have to confront security guards who won’t allow us near the building but they usually give in after a brief argument because even they understand how desperately we need the cash from the metal and cable sales. At times we even have to bribe them to gain access into the building,” he said.

Asked how he had survived the accident on Wednesday Mathonsi replied that hunger had driven him out of the building in search of food.

“I was feeling very hungry and had gone to the nearest Shell garage to buy some bread. On my return I was welcomed by a huge swirl of dust but did not immediately understand what was happening. Until I noticed from the distance that the dust came from the direction of the building and as only one side of the building was still erect, it soon became clear to me that there was trouble,” Mathonsi recounted.

Asked if he would still engage in the illegal trade Mathonsi replied that he essentially had no choice.

“I will just wait for the dust to settle then return to make money to put food on the family table. I have four kids all of which live with me here so if I decide to give up after the accident who is going to feed them?”

On Thursday morning as rescue workers searched for survivors a standoff ensued between security guards and suspected thieves determined to strip the building of more metal and cables.

The grisly accident occurred in the midst of rising concerns about the continuing theft of metal and cables, especially in townships in and around Johannesburg. Dozens of scrap yards, legal and illegal, have sprung up and offer around R40 to R50 per kilogram of cable. While many township youth steal the metal and cables to sustain their Nyaope addiction, others do it to provide for and sustain their families.

A Soweto police service spokesperson, Warrant Officer Kay Makhubela, confirmed that the building was privately owned.

“The building has a private owner and he has since opened a case of theft with police,” said Makhubela.

Asked if the suspected thieves would be charged with theft, Makhubela said this would be decided at the conclusion of ongoing investigations into the details of the accident.

Makhubela added that police were not certain whether bodies remained trapped under the rubble but that the possibility of more casualties being recovered could not be ruled out.

“There are families who have come forward to say that they are missing loved ones. Currently I know of three families that have come forward to say that they do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones and that they suspect they could have been involved in the illegal trade,” said Makhubela.

Meanwhile residents of Orlando and surrounding areas sorrow deepen as they await a complete removal of the rubble on Monday to see if missing family members’ bodies will be recovered. DM

Photo: Rescue workers stand next to a collapsed building in Power Park in Soweto on Thursday, 2


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