Old Prison building still on fire

The historic Old Prison that caught alight early on Thursday afternoon was still blazing late in the evening following several set-backs in attempts to extuinguish the fire.

Firemen who arrived at the scene at about 2pm battled to put out the fire that is believed to have been caused by an electrical fault. The fire trucks ran out of water at the scene and then attempts to utilise water from the two fire hydrants in the vicinity of the Old Prison on Burger Street, proved futile, as the hydrants were not in working order.

Water – normally sent to areas experiencing water shortages – had to then be brought in by Msunduzi Water tankers.

In all the drama, two firemen who attempted to investigate and extinguish the fire within the prison building were rushed to hospital with severe injuries after a stairwell collapsed on them. They are said to be in a serious condition.

Municipal spokesman Thobeka Mafumbatha said the fire department was doing all it could do to extinguish the fire given the circumstances. She said they had no reports of anyone else being injured or trapped in the building.

“The cause of the fire is not known at this stage,” said Mafumbatha.

Concerned residents who gathered at the scene said they were shocked to see the building on fire.

“This is history going up in flames. It is unbelievable what we witnessed with the lack of water provision. God forbid people were trapped in there or that this fire could not be contained,” said the resident.

The Old Prison is a historic building in the city where many activists involved in the freedom struggle were detained before and their trials. It was closed in 1989 and was given to Project Gateway, a community outreach organisation that used it as a centre for community development projects.

Prisoners included famous leaders and historical figures, such as Nelson Mandela, King Dinizulu, Kasturba Gandhi (Gandhi’s wife), Harry Gwala, Moses Mabhida, Peter Brown, A S Chetty, Omar Essack and Derick Marsh to name a few.

The first cell block was declared a National Monument and was one of the oldest buildings in Pietermaritzburg.

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