MEMORIAL TO THE 77
Tragedy and miracles unfold: Remembering the many Albert Street fire victims
A solemn memorial service, hosted by the South African Council of Churches, honoured the 77 lives lost in the recent Albert Street fire in Johannesburg’s CBD. The event shed light on heart-wrenching stories of survivors, including the miraculous rescue of three-year-old Islam Chikwana. Impassioned speakers emphasised the need for collective care and accountability in preventing such tragedies. As survivors recounted their harrowing experiences, the City’s ongoing issues with housing and basic services came into sharp focus, demanding urgent attention from authorities.
In the spirit of remembering the 77 lives that departed in a fire that engulfed a five-storey building at 80 Albert Street in Johannesburg’s CBD last week, plus the many others injured and survivors, a revelation came to light during a memorial service held on Friday, 8 September 2023, that a three-year-old boy Islam Chikwana came out of the fire unharmed.
“If we had cared, the Marshalltown tragedy would have never happened.”
These were the words of Ishmael Mkhabela, chair of the Inner City Partnership, apartheid activist, and former president of the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) during the memorial service held in honour of the Marshalltown fire victims.
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Mkhabela continued: “When the government doesn’t care, it is the poor that suffer, when the church doesn’t care, it will act like a panel beater. If the church cared, it would have visited the Usindiso building and stopped voting for a government which doesn’t care, and if it cared, it would have provided alternative accommodation in the City for many living in the dilapidated buildings. The City is not working for the poor, the rich, visitors and people who stay here.
“I have a lot to say but I would not like to say much, as words will not help you. I understand what it is to survive… on 29 July, 1964 a bus ran over me and I lost my leg. As I look at you, my brothers and sisters, I am touched. We will always remember that day at 1 am, 31st August. You will never forget it.”
The event, hosted by the South African Council of Churches in Gauteng, drew more than 100 victims and families of victims (predominantly hailing from Malawi and Tanzania), church leaders, community leaders, civil society organisations, and the greater Johannesburg community. Amid the many present were Reverend Mzwandile Molo and Bishop Dr White Makabe Rakuba, chairperson of the SACC in Gauteng.
Speaking during the memorial, Reverend Molo said: “What happened at Albert Street happened to all of us. We must ask the question of how is it possible in this country to create a time bomb that allows 77 people to lose their lives? There is a social construct that created this reality. We also need to ensure that the lives lost and those of survivors are identified and assisted with needs. We want accountability.”
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Mohammed Chikwana, who hails from Malawi, is one of the many survivors of the fire and father to “miracle baby Islam Chikwana”, who came out of the fire unharmed after the Emergency Service had extinguished the building in the early hours of 31st August 2023.
Forgotten miracle baby survives
Chikwana told Daily Maverick that on the day of the incident, Chikwana, his wife and their other five-month-old baby managed to jump out of the window, sustaining burns and injuries that his child and wife are still being treated for in hospital. While they did that, they left Islam in the room, only to realise later that they had both left him inside.
“While the fire was raging, I insisted on going back in to try and save my son. However, the emergency service team would not let me back in. They said I should wait until they put out the fire and either way they said I could not go back inside the building, and with the extent of the fire everyone was burnt inside and most probably dead. But I insisted that my child was in there and if he was dead or it was ashes, please go and get it.
“So the firefighters went back and brought my child alive. The police took the baby to the hospital to check for any injuries or inhalation. From the check-ups nothing is wrong with him; he is fine. I was happy to see that my son is still alive though I’m still in shock and a bit disturbed from that day. I can still smell the fire and have visions of people burning and dying in front of me,” said Chikwana.
Jumping to save lives
Another survivor from Malawi, Abdul Wittey, says jumping out of the window saved his life. Of his four sibling brothers, Wittey was the only survivor, having lost his brothers to smoke inhalation.
Meanwhile, Peace James (19) says she is still looking for her parents and two-year-old sister who all lived in the building, but has struggled to connect with or find them after the fire.
“I have been to every hospital where survivors have been taken, but I still can’t find any of my family members. It’s very worrying because the family back home in Malawi expects answers that I currently don’t have. My family just moved into that building about two years ago, when we left home in Malawi to come and find greener pastures,” she said. DM
A call centre has been set up to help families locate missing people or bodies.
The numbers are: 0800-203-886, 011-241-5767 and 011-355-3048.
The bodies have been taken to Diepkloof mortuary. Any survivors have been taken to Helen Joseph, Charlotte Maxeke, Chris Hani Baragwanath, Tembisa Provincial and South Rand hospitals.