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UCT fire: students tell how they grabbed textbooks and...

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UCT fire: students tell how they grabbed textbooks and laptops and fled

Some students managed to pack a suitcase; others just had time to grab their laptops and run. (Photo: Marecia Damons)

Student provides first-hand account of panic and confusion as Cape Town fire forced campus evacuation.

First published by GroundUp.

Second-year student Elizabeth Pretorius was busy preparing for a Sociology tutorial on Sunday morning at her student residence, Graça Machel Hall, when the fire broke out which was to tear through the University of Cape Town campus and spread across the mountain.

“It was a normal Sunday morning. I made plans to go out for ice cream with one of my cousins later that day.

“I just heard helicopters outside, but I thought nothing of it. Around 9am I started smelling the smoke from my room, but I didn’t think it would spread to campus and come this far. So I closed my window, because the smell of the smoke became overwhelming, and I continued working.”

Pretorius said they were alerted on WhatsApp group chats that the residences on the upper campus were evacuating and that they would be notified if they also needed to leave. Then they received an email from UCT explaining that they had 15 to 20 minutes to vacate the premises.

“The fire alarms went off and an announcement was made over the intercom that there was a fire on campus.”

“I grabbed a bag and packed in my laptop because I was thinking of all the assignments I still had to do. I grabbed my student card, matric certificate, study notes, a file with all my personal information, a bottle of water, pain medication, my phone and charger.

“I only took those, because I thought we’d be back in three to five hours at most.”

Pretorius is a fire marshall at her residence. Before she could leave, she first had to inspect the other rooms to see if everyone had left.

“We’ve done several fire drills at res, so most of us knew where the emergency exits were. Getting out of the residence went quite smoothly, but the moment we got outside everyone started running in panic. People outside were crying. Some people didn’t have shoes on, others ran out in pyjamas, some were half-dressed.

“When I saw people running with suitcases, I got stressed, because I’d only left with the clothes on my back: a spaghetti top, jeans and sandals.

“The smoke was overwhelming, and our eyes were tearing up from it. I had difficulty breathing because I was wearing my mask and also inhaling smoke.

“Some people lost their phones on the staircases while they were running, but there wasn’t time to go back and fetch them. Most people I saw ran out with textbooks.

“My mom called and then my dad, because they saw the reports that the fire was getting out of hand. I didn’t fully process what was happening, I was just focussing on getting out of there.”

UCT is now planning the return of the 4,000 students who were evacuated from residences during the fire.

In a statement on 21 April, UCT said that the process of assessing the health and safety of students returning to campus is underway. Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said that UCT would “make alternative arrangements for those residences deemed unsafe due to fire damage”.

“Our priority is the safety and health of every student, and to create the conditions necessary for a full return to the university’s academic programme as soon as possible,” said Phakeng.

UCT Students’ Representative Council member Gisella Shaer said some of the students would move back into residences on Thursday. “But also it all depends on fire marshals… and that it is safe for students to return,” said Shaer.

Smuts Hall and Fuller Hall on the upper campus were damaged in the fire.

A student from Smuts Hall, who didn’t want to be named, told GroundUp he did not get a chance to grab anything during the evacuation. He said everything happened very fast. He was sleeping when the evacuation started and was shocked when he walked outside and saw the fire.

“We were quick; we had to grab whatever we could. But I didn’t get a chance to,” he said.

Tshiamo Modise who was living at Tugwell Hall, said she was able to pack most of the stuff she needed, but not everyone in her residence got the chance to do so. She said the evacuation went smoothly but she was worried about a test later this week.

“I am stressed about what is going to happen for the next few days,” said Modise. “They’re telling us not to stress.” DM



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All Comments 8

  • I can see no reason why those students in Kapano, Graca Machel, Baxter Hall, Tugwell, Leo Marquard, The Woolsack, College House and Glen Res amongst others were not allowed to return to their residences by sundown on Sunday. I live in a block of flats in Chapel Road, opposite Baxter Hall. cont.

    • At about 15:30 on Sunday I returned from a walk which took me past the Mowbray Bowling Club, which had had about two m² of its roof on the mountain side burnt, Mostert’s Mill, which by that stage was a ruin, as were all the thatched roof buildings in that complex, continued.

      • down Rhodes Ave past Trig Survey and along Cecil Road where the grass on the embankment leading up to the Rhodes Sports Ground had been burnt. The fire brigade were in attendance at all those places, and at no time did I feel that I was in any danger. continued.

        • There was a little smoke but not enough to make breathing difficult. It was clear that the Welgelegen Homestead, a national monument owned by UCT was safe, although the grass in the field above it had been scorched. At about 15:45 I was sent a video showing a palm tree ablaze. continued

          • From the street sign I could see that it was on the corner of Alma Road and the Main Road, about two blocks from where I live. At about 18:00 I went to have a look at it, and saw that most of the upper fronds were still intact, so it must have been doused very soon after the video was taken. cont.

  • So by sundown on Sunday there was very little chance of any of the residences listed above being in any danger, and hence no reason for not allowing the students to return. Only the students resident at Fuller & Smuts Halls on the main campus needed to have alternative accommodation found for them.

    • From what Ms Pretorius told the writers of this article, it was clear that the university had no plan in place about what to do with the students once they had vacated their residences. At six o’clock that evening the Main Road was full of students milling around, continued

      • when by that stage most of them should have been allowed to go back to their residences. According to this article some students will be allowed back to their residences only tomorrow, Thursday. I hope by now most of them are already back.

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