Man tells commission how he lost wife, child in building fire

A man has told the judicial commission of inquiry into the Marshalltown building fire incident that he lost his wife and toddler in the deadly blaze.

On Tuesday, Mike Ngulube, a survivor of the fire, testified before the commission of inquiry.  

The August 31, 2023 fire broke out at the Usindiso Building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, and claimed 77 lives. A total of 88 people were injured.

The commission of inquiry continues to hear testimonies from the survivors of the fire. The proceedings are taking place at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg. Retired former Constitutional Court judge, Sisi Khampepe, chairs the commission. Another commissioner is Vuyelwa Mathida Mabena.

Ngulube said he started living at the Usindiso Building around 2020 during the lockdown enforced due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

He lived on the first floor with his wife and daughter who was one year and four months old. 

Ngulube said his wife woke him up on the night of the fire.

“My wife woke me up, saying that there is noise. I woke up and heard noises like glasses breaking. I stood up and opened the door to my room. There was a lot of smoke and fire all over the corridor. I closed my door and told my wife that the building was on fire. My wife then picked up our child and went into the corridor [to try and escape the fire].

Overwhelmed by flames after catching fire

“I was only wearing my boxers at the time, so I got dressed and left my room. I then went back to my room to get our passports, asylum papers and our child’s birth certificate. I then went out of our room. On my way out, I was going towards the balcony. There was an electric box on the wall, and the electricity was restored, and the electric box exploded, throwing me into the corridor,” said Ngulube.

He said the explosion made him lose his bag, in which he was carrying the family’s passports, asylum papers and daughter’s birth certificate.

Ngulube said the flames overwhelmed him after catching the fire.

“I caught fire. Fortunately, I got up and ran to the balcony. When I got to the balcony, I saw a family through the window that was inside their room, crying and asking for help. There was nothing I could do to help them,” said Ngulube.

He said he saw a tree next to the balcony and jumped onto it to get to the ground.

“I landed on a side that was far away from where the firefighters and paramedics were. Fortunately, I still had my cellphone on me, and called colleagues at my workplace to come and assist me. They (colleagues) are always working on standby and patrolling around the area I lived in. That is why I called them,” said Ngulube.

He said one of his colleagues answered his call and he told him he was burned and asked to be taken to the hospital.

Colleagues feared taking injured man to hospital

Ngulube said his colleagues could not take him to hospital as they feared he might die on the way there.

He said security guards from a building next to Usindiso helped put out the fire which was burning him.

“I was put on the ambulance taken to [Chris Hani] Baragwanath Academic Hospital. I was unconscious when I go to the hospital and woke up in the ICU (intensive care unit).”

Ngulube said after regaining consciousness, he asked the doctors where his wife and daughter were.

“The doctors could not tell me my family died because I was not in good condition. So, they told me my family is fine. Later, when I was feeling better, the doctors took me to the boardroom and told me my wife and child died in the fire due to smoke inhalation.”

Another witness, Yandisa Mnqandi, told the inquiry that he lost his 14-year-old stepdaughter in the fire.

Mnqandi said he, his girlfriend and a two-year-old child sustained injuries after jumping from the fourth floor of the burning building.

Stepdaughter dies in room

“My girlfriend woke me up and told me that there was a fire. When I woke up, my girlfriend said I should wrap the child in a blanket. I took the child and we jumped from the fourth floor until we reached the ground floor. My girlfriend jumped afterwards. My stepdaughter remained behind. I think she was afraid to jump from the building. When we went back into the building to search for her, we found her dead,” said Mnqandi. 

The inquiry will continue on Wednesday with more testimony by other survivors of the fire.

The inquiry seeks to determine the cause of the fire and the prevalence of hijacked buildings in the Johannesburg CBD.

It is expected to make a ruling and recommendations on who should shoulder the blame. This pertains to the deaths, injuries, and homelessness of the victims of the incident.

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