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Inside tragic Munatsi fire death trap

by Staff reporter
03 Dec 2021 at 13:21hrs | Views
HARARE City Council fire chief Clever Mafoti yesterday downplayed suggestions that his crews could have saved Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency boss, Douglas Munatsi, who died in a shocking fire incident at his penthouse on Monday morning.

Mafoti spoke as several top firemen across Zimbabwe maintained that Munatsi could have been saved had it not been for serious incapacities at Harare's fire department.

But as he revealed in an exclusive interview with the Zimbabwe Independent, Harare's rot extends beyond fire stations.

The prolonged water crisis that has crippled a city once seen as an African pride, also contributed to the BancABC founder's death, according to firefighting experts.

Munatsi's partially burnt body was found in a sitting position near a bathtub about three hours after firefighters began battling the inferno.

The fire chief said on arrival, his crew made the necessary connections before reaching out to fight the inferno.

However, they were shocked to find that fire hydrants could not help because of weak pumping capacity.

"Connecting the hose was not the challenge," Mafoti told the Independent. "But the wet riser (fire hydrants) had low pressure and when the situation is like that, it is difficult to fight a blaze," he said.

Mafoti said firefighting equipment deployed on the fateful morning was insufficient to contain the inferno.

"Technically, I cannot complain though the equipment we have is not sufficient, it can best be described as standard," he said.

Mafoti claimed that Northfields Estate residents could have reported the incident late, and the top banker could have attempted to battle the flames alone while the inferno was building up.

"Most of the incidents depend on when the blaze time has been detected. You should never attempt to put out the fire before calling the fire brigade. If you notice, according to interviews conducted, the victim was not the one who called the fire brigade," he said.

"In these circumstances you call the fire brigade then try to fight the fire with the knowledge that rescue is on the way.

"In most cases … victims are usually busy trying to salvage something from the house," Mafoti added.

Northfields, a real estate gem, sits in an area that for long has been affected by serious pumping capacity problems.

Even when water is flowing through Harare CBD's pipes, residents in upper apartments often find it difficult to access water and have to find alternative sources.

This is one of many crises confronting Harare and other urban areas, who have also been enduring rolling power blackouts recently. On the day tragedy struck, residents reported the area had a power cut.

Mafoti also revealed that use of an extended ladder was also difficult.

"Our fire tender reaches 30 metres and, in this case, there are tall trees along Tongogara Avenue," Mafoti said. "The 9th Floor is actually approximately 15 metres high and could have been reached easily if it was accessible. We received the call at 03:02 and we immediately dispatched a vehicle which left the station at 3:03am and arrived at the scene at 3:08am. Three vehicles attended the scene, one from Greendale, another from Kuwadzana and the third from Belvedere."

He said firefighters successfully stopped the blaze from spreading.

"When we attend a fire incident, the objective is to cut the fire from spreading and we deal with the actual fire after making sure that the blaze will not spread to other parts," Mafoti said.

The fire, described by President Emmerson Mnangagwa as mysterious, exposed challenges faced by firefighters across the country. Yesterday Mnangagwa directed that Munatsi, one of several technocrats in his government, be accorded a state-assisted funeral. The President said they await police investigations into Munatsi's death in "unclear circumstances", which came as a shock to him.

Teddy Gaza, a Munatsi family spokesperson, told the Independent yesterday they were due to issue a statement, while police spokesperson Paul Nyathi said the police were still conducting investigations.

"Once we have information, we will share with the public," he said.

The police are also trying to locate a "Colleta NFPK", who was recorded as the last person to visit Munatsi at the penthouse.  .

Fire experts, most employed in big cities and towns, said several challenges, including obsolete equipment, low water pressure and failure to access the flat timeously could have contributed to Munatsi's demise.

They revealed shocking details of the state of affairs at fire stations across Zimbabwe. Most fire tenders have been donated, and are old.

An experienced firefighter, who also conducts training for councils, said most cities had aged fire tenders, uncharged hydrants and had difficulties accessing tall buildings. He said while firefighters from Harare arrived in time at the scene, timeous access to the building was critical.

"Even if you arrive early but without equipment to reach the fire, there is nothing you can do," the firefighter said. "Firefighting equipment is very expensive and councils are struggling financially and for them to afford to buy firefighting equipment for one tender you are looking at about US$500 000."

He said the department needs funding from the Treasury.

"In countries doing well such as South Africa, the fire brigades are usually funded by the government and this helps them in having the necessary equipment," he said.  "Councils in Zimbabwe are relying on used equipment that is being donated from the United Kingdom."

The firefighter said these second-hand vehicles can break down anytime and are therefore not reliable.

"Government can actually fund the Civil Protection Department and in other countries they have the department as a ministry receiving a budget from the fiscus," he said.

Ideal equipment includes turntable ladders, extended ladders or hydraulic platforms, which assist firefighters to access high-rise buildings.

"Most short ladders go up to the 4th floor and in this case we are talking about accessing the 9th floor of a 10-floor building."

Water challenges bedevilling urban areas mean most hydrants, which are critical in firefighting, are usually dry.

"The major challenge with hydrants is that they are always uncharged, meaning they are always without water. Even taps in most towns are always dry with residents sometimes getting water for two or three hours per day or per week. The same system which brings water for domestic consumption also charges the hydrants and when there is no water in an area it means the hydrants are also dry," he said.

Source - The Zimbabwe Independent