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CONSTRUCTION SITE DISASTER

No one knows how many people were inside collapsed George building – Bheki Cele

No one knows how many people were inside collapsed George building – Bheki Cele
Delvin Safers, an electrician who was caught in the George building collapse, recovers in hospital with his girlfriend Nicole and their son Zayer | Delvin Safers before the building collapse « Delvin Safers after the building collapse. (Photos: Supplied: Deon Safers)

The search for workers missing after a building collapsed in George entered its seventh day on Sunday, with 32 people still unaccounted for.

Police Minister Bheki Cele visited the site of a collapsed building in George on Sunday accompanied by National Police Commissioner General Fannie Masemola and Deputy National Commissioner for Policing and Special Operations, Lieutenant-General Tebello Mosikili. They also visited the families of missing workers congregating at the George Town Hall.

Cele said the number of workers at the site when the building collapsed was not clear.

“There are a few gaps that we are looking at,” Cele said. “From our side as the police, we have established that nobody knows how many people were here. Numbers that we know are those that are in hospital, those that have recovered, were rescued, and the deceased.”

In its update on Sunday, the George municipality said it was estimated that 81 workers were on-site when the building collapsed. Of these, 49 had been recovered, of whom 20 had died and 14 were still in hospital, while 32 people were still unaccounted for. 

Cele said 10 forensic teams were at the collapse site.

Distraught Owenzela Ralarala (29), whose partner Vuyo Klaas is among those yet to be recovered, pleaded with the minister to be allowed to go to the site. 

“We have been waiting for far too long,” she said. “It’s a week now and the rescue operation is moving slowly. We are not given frequent updates and the waiting is killing us.”  

George fire chief Neels Barnard told Daily Maverick they had to be cautious with the operation because there might still be survivors under the rubble. 

“We must be absolutely sure that there is no one that we can harm further. That is why we are cautious with what we are doing. But we are doing our utmost best to ensure that we get to a point where we bring more bodies to their families,” Barnard said.

Cleaner to cement mixer

One of the workers believed to be trapped under the rubble, Florence Kawunga (19), was hired as a cleaner at the site four months ago. However, her brother told Rapport that instead of a broom, she was handed a shovel and instructed to mix cement, carry bricks or push wheelbarrows filled with sand. 

The hopes of rescue personnel at the site were renewed on Saturday when another survivor was extricated from the rubble after more than 118 hours of rescue efforts.

Gabriel Guambe (32) was taken to hospital, where he was found to have only minor injuries. He had his first meal since the collapse of the building on Monday afternoon.

“I’m okay now, everything is okay. Thank you, God bless you guys,” he said in a video message for the rescue teams, shared by the Garden Route District Joint Operational Centre.

George building collapse

Deon Safers (left) with his son, Delvin, who was rescued from the rubble of the collapsed building in George on Tuesday, 7 May 2024. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Reunited with family

On Tuesday, 7 May, Daily Maverick spoke with Deon Safers, the father of an electrician who was caught in the building collapse. Safers had been waiting at the town’s civic centre across the road from the disaster site for more than 24 hours with no food or sleep.

“I’m not going home, I’m going nowhere. I don’t even want to eat. I want my boy out of there and I must pray for him and I must hope he will get out of there,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘I want my boy out of there’ — agonising vigil for families of those trapped in George building rubble

That evening, after more than a day beneath the rubble, his son, Delvin Safers, was freed by the rescue teams and brought to Mediclinic George. He had scrapes, bruises and a cracked rib but was otherwise healthy. 

Delvin Safers and his family sat down with Daily Maverick in their home town of Mossel Bay on Friday, after he was discharged from hospital in George.  

“Everybody’s been asking me how it feels to be back with my family and I haven’t really figured out the words to describe it. But it was nice to feel at home – you see your father, your mother, your child, your girlfriend. You feel like you are back at home… You feel tremendous joy,” Safers said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: George ‘national calamity’ building collapse death toll rises to 12 — Winde hails efforts of tireless teams

Speaking about his two-year-old son, Zyar, he added: “Luckily he doesn’t really know what’s going on, what’s happening around him, so that gives me some peace.”

Safers was working with four colleagues, three of whom were on the first floor of the building when it collapsed. The fourth was standing with him on the third floor.

He struggled with English, but at least we could just communicate to say, ‘We are three people here’.

“We had a problem with our work and we were just talking about it, and then in one second, it was down,” he recalled.

“I didn’t lose consciousness, but I couldn’t feel my arm… I couldn’t see my arm. I couldn’t see anything, it was dark… I could move my toes and stuff but my feet, my legs were trapped with rocks.”

For the first 30 minutes after the collapse, Safers lay in the dark, trying to free his trapped arm. With some difficulty, he retrieved his cellphone from his pocket and, using the torch function, was able to see his surroundings and slowly remove the rocks covering his arm.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Consulting engineer who signed off plans for collapsed George building reported missing — later found

At that time he wasn’t aware of any other survivors around him. “It was only me and my colleague, but when I looked at him, I couldn’t hear him. I tried calling him… nothing. Couldn’t hear him breathe. So, I assumed he didn’t make it,” Safers said.

Later, he heard two other people somewhere in the rubble. One was too far away to communicate with, but the other responded to his calls. 

“Me and him, we could at least talk to one another. It was difficult because the language barrier was a problem… He struggled with English, but at least we could just communicate to say, ‘We are three people here’,” he said.

‘I tried screaming’

Safers didn’t sleep the entire time he was trapped, too afraid that he would sleep through rescuers’ attempts to locate him. When he first heard them yelling above, he said it sounded like they were “100 miles away”.

“I tried screaming but it didn’t help… On my right side, there was a small metal piece. I tried to knock it but it didn’t make much noise. But on my left side, there was a ladder – a bit far away from me but at least I could reach it with my one arm,” he said.

“I just knocked it, knocked it, knocked it and it made a little bit of noise. But my arm got tired with time, because it was already after so many hours.”

While he was trapped, Safers used his cellphone to message members of his family. When the battery dropped to 10% in the early hours of Tuesday, he switched his phone off to preserve power, only sending a message every couple of hours. 

For his father, who arrived on the scene on Monday evening, each message was a precious sign that his son was still alive.

Although you don’t hear sounds, it could be that people are unconscious now.

“When I arrived there Monday night… and I took a look at that rubble in there, I said to myself, ‘No one will survive in this disaster, no one.’ But by the grace of God, he and a few other survivors made it out of there,” Deon Safers said. 

“That phone was my hope because at least he communicated with my wife, he communicated with his girlfriend and he communicated with his cousin. And then all the information, they gave it to me because I was busy there at the scene.”

One of Deon Safers’s good friends was helping in the rescue efforts and he gave the family updates when they got closer to Delvin Safers’s position. The rescuers were eventually able to break through the concrete layers to give him water and snacks, before freeing him from the rubble completely.

George Safers

Deon Safers on 10 May 2024, standing behind his family, from left: Grandson Zyar Safers, wife Delmarie Safers, son Delvin Safers and Delvin’s girlfriend Nicole Arendse. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“I don’t know, really, how to describe that moment,” said Deon Safers, when asked how he felt when he heard that his son had been rescued. “We were happy. Me and my wife were crying.”

Delvin Safers said the developer and contractor responsible for the site should be held accountable if it was found that they took “shortcuts” or made poor decisions that led to the collapse.

“It’s a really ugly and difficult situation. I don’t know if [the rescuers] have stopped looking for living people but they should at least… give themselves seven days to try and rescue people who are still alive,” he said. “Although you don’t hear sounds, it could be that people are unconscious now.

“I hope and pray that they still find ones who are alive and well.” 

The Garden Route District Joint Operational Centre has made an urgent request for professional psychosocial support practitioners proficient in the Chewa, Portuguese and Shona languages to assist survivors and their families. Contact Kholiswa Jobela at 078 210 5972 or Apolus Swart at 061 504 4205. DM

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  • virginia crawford says:

    I suggest everyone take a good look at building sites around you, whether it is a house or something larger. What I notice is the poor footwear, slipslops or broken shoes, and people in rags. There are no safety inspectors to call or anyone to report to. Perhaps if people paid attention when home repairs are being done, shabby work practices would be exposed. This tragedy exposes the appalling situation where the cheapest is best and having the cement mixed by an unqualified person and with no supervision, is criminal. Where is the on site foreman? He has a story to tell.

    • E.l A says:

      I agree 100% Perhaps the site foreman is one of those trapped in the rubble. But it will be interesting to know what comes out of the investigation. And to see if anything is learnt/implemented from this tragic story.

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      Yes, lots gets done substandard these days, but lets wait for investigations to bear fruit. When the likes of Cele do a site visit, I start to get concerned about his motives. I am not sure if this is a crime scene just yet. Why is Cele there? Lets not add to the further distress of all the family members and loved ones by making this into a political event.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Cele shows up to make sure what exactly?

  • Mark Penwarden says:

    Beke Cele adding value as always “…Numbers that we know are those that are in hospital, those that have recovered, were rescued, and the deceased”. Brilliant Watson!

    • Bob Dubery says:

      Because somebody asked him a question along the lines of “how many people were in the building when it collapsed?” or “why is there no definite number of people in the building when it collapsed?”.

      He should just say “next question please?”

      Look, the guy is not the best minister of police we have had (which may not be saying a lot), but what is he supposed to say when asked a direct question?

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        They have not yet learnt the ‘art’ of ‘fudging’ an answer like the American ‘spokespeople’ who come on TV to respond to questions e.g. the ongoing genocide in Gaza. ‘Red lines’ with lots of ‘elastic’ in them … e.g. an offensive into Rafa has to be a “major” one. The daily slaughter of smaller numbers (only women & children – no men) don’t count. Closing and reoccupation of humanitarian supply routes are o.k. – no ‘outrage’ …only ‘concern’ (so many they would fill an encyclopedia) required. Lack of ‘basic services’ are a minor ‘inconvenience’ ! Etc, etc.

  • Trevor Gray says:

    Bheki Cele presence an easy means of local electioneering? How much does the clown in the hat cost SAPS to swan about pretending to assist? How many cops would be freed to do real crime fighting? His entourage/ blue light brigade is better utilized!

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Cele is as shameless as he’s gormless. Quoting him on anything other than his views on Temu mafia don cosplay outfit selection reflects poorly on the Maverick.

  • Nic Grobler says:

    How would ‘they’ have paid the workers if they don’t know how many, i.e who, were there?

  • Thank you for your newsarticles.

  • Gavin Knox says:

    One position not yet mentioned anywhere is the human resources manager. His records should show how many people, from site management down to the cleaners were employed on a full time basis the project. A physical count of those not physically in the building will give the identity of those unaccounted for.
    Because every construction site has its shirkers and its workers, and not all are actually physically in the building.
    It highly probable the there were a number of undocumented daily labor (foreign migrants) involved as this is the easy way to avoid all the added costs that comes with correctly documented labour.
    A pretty common practice on smaller projects such as this one.
    As far as the quality of material used should easily be ascertained by simply checking the store yard where cement, scaffold and every other items required on a construction site are stored.

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