, JOHANNESBURG, Aug 2 – Fire swept through a home for the elderly near Johannesburg on Monday killing 18 people, but dozens were rescued through windows and dragged from the flames on mattresses, paramedics said.
The fire erupted late Sunday and gutted the Pieter Wessels home for the elderly in Nigel, on the southeastern outskirts of the South African city.
Seventeen people burned to death, while a woman died of a heart attack after being rescued, private emergency services provider Netcare 911 spokesman Chris Botha told AFP.
Charlotte Maxeke Hospital said one man had been airlifted for treatment and was in critical condition with burns on 50 percent of his body. Two others were seriously injured, Botha added.
Rescue workers and nurses carried residents out of the building, pulled them through windows and dragged them out on mattresses as flames jumped one metre (three feet) above the roof, said Louis Gouws, medical institution director for Meals on Wheels, which operates the facility.
"Burglar bars were cut off and we released the patients through the windows. We ran into the building but there was so much smoke you could not see a thing," he said.
Security or burglar bars are common features on South African homes due to the high crime rate, but are also blamed for slowing down emergency escapes in fires.
"You couldn\’t even see half a metre in front of you. And the smoke was so bad that you became very weak. Even if you run in there, you don\’t have the strength," Gouws added.
The first firefighters at the scene had to call for back-up after seeing the blaze consume the single-storey building.
Gouws said in all about 300 people helped fight the fire and rescue residents.
"The building was engulfed in flames and emergency personnel leaped into action," Botha said.
"Eighteen people are dead and 84 rescued," he said, adding that scores were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.
The fire gutted the building, leaving its outer walls charred.
Firefighters, police and emergency workers were still at the scene early Monday, looking for clues as to what started the blaze.
Gouws said residents were very frail and could not have escaped on their own. Some couldn\’t even state their names, he said.
Nearby churches took in some of the pensioners left homeless by the blaze, and appealed for emergency supplies to help care for them.
Other survivors were taken to retirement homes in neighbouring communities, but the influx of pensioners was placing a strain on the area\’s elderly care facilities, provincial health department spokesman Mandla Sidu told AFP.
"Old age homes are not that many, but we are making every effort to make sure that we accommodate these residents," he said.
Zweli Dlamini, Ekurhuleni fire department spokesman, said the emergency call came just before 9:00 pm (1900 GMT) Sunday.
"When firefighters got to the scene, they tried to stop the fire and evacuate people inside," Dlamini told AFP. "It was bigger than they expected. Seven other fire stations were called to the scene for back-up."
"It took firefighters an hour to put the fire out. Firefighters then had to dampen down the scene to make sure fire doesn\’t start again," he said.
"Our guys only finished just after 4:00 am," he said. "This is the most tragic incident that has happened here, losing one life is bad enough but losing 18 lives in one night is devastating."
The last major deadly fire in South Africa was on February 9 when 13 children and two adults died in a blaze at an orphanage.