Death Toll Rises to 22 as Fire Destroys Church-owned Nursing Home
Pieter Wessels Home burned to ground in middle-of-night fire
BY EBRAHIM ISHMAIL, Communication Director, Transvaal Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
he death toll has risen to 22 in the wake of a nighttime August 1 fire that destroyed the Pieter Wessels Frail Care facility, owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Transvaal Conference. The Wessels home is in Nigel, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) southeast of Johannesburg.
Initially, 17 were reported dead at the scene, officials said. Another person died from an apparent heart attack following the blaze. Media reports in South Africa on August 4 indicated an additional four people died while hospitalized.
By the time the night staff stumbled upon the scene of the fire just before 9 p.m. local time, the heavy smoke overwhelmed them, curbing efforts to douse the fire. The fire soon spread via curtains to the ceiling, setting the roofing timbers ablaze. Local emergency services were immediately summoned.
The 102 frail residents, many in their nineties, who have been in 24 hour care were the focus of the rescue effort. Staff and rescuers managed to carry out 84 residents who could save only what they had on. When the fire fighters brought the fire under control round about 11 p.m., 17 bodies were carried out, found among the remains of the ruins. Only one was recognisable.
Local volunteers and churches from other denominations stepped forward and offered temporary shelter for the survivors.
The fire destroyed all the resident’s possessions including medication and personal documents. There was nothing which the staff could save which belonged to the facility. The fire destroyed everything, including patient records.
Some of the staff, who number 80, were gathered outside the premises this morning and were visibly affected by the traumatic event. They wandered aimlessly outside the gate of the facility which is guarded by the South African Police Services.
Provincial government officials were on hand quickly to offer their assistance in managing many aspects of this tragedy. Rescue officials were still on the scene the following morning, along with forensic experts who sifted through the ruins for evidence of how the fire was started.
The Transvaal Conference is deeply affected by this tragedy, officials said. A recovery plan has been put in place whose sole function is to develop immediate plans to re-house the destitute, find alternate employment for the current employees, and continue to sustain the destitute.