A fire fighter’s instinct and experience saved his colleague from burning to death.
Bennie van der Wath
A fire had overrun a scrapyard. A gas bottle exploded, creating shards of debris. A man was lying on his face in the smouldering pine needles, his back cut open. No one knew what else was in there, ready to explode...
When Shift B from Vereeniging Fire Station received a call about a grass fire on a smallholding off the Old Johannesburg Road in Vereeniging, they had no idea that a routine fire fighting operation would turn into a nightmare. Two firemen rushed to the scene, only to realise that it was not a grass fire, but a veld fire on a smallholding that was also a scrap yard. They called for back-up. Reassured by the owner of the property that there were no combustible or hazardous materials among the scrap that could pose a danger, the duo got to work extinguishing the fire, while the rest of the team arrived.
As the thick smoke began to subside, one of the firemen noticed a raised diesel tank with flames under it. Within seconds, there was a deafening explosion. A gas cylinder covered by other loose scrap had exploded in the centre of the yard, creating a huge ball of flames with flying debris. Traffic officers immediately closed Old Johannesburg Road as the smoke and flying debris posed a danger to passing motorists.
The cylinder and shrapnel hit one of the firemen rendering him semi-conscious. The other fireman was thrown several metres but managed to get up and stumble out towards the fire engine. Fire fighter Bennie van der Wath was on the scene. “I saw a ball of fire and flames and knew my crew was in trouble,” he says. “I ran in the direction where I last saw Mahanya and found him semi-conscious but unable to move, so I locked my arms around his chest and dragged him out of the danger area.
I removed his bunker jacket and saw shrapnel had penetrated through the bunker gear into his back. I called the control room to send an ambulance.” Leaving Mahanya in the care of a policeman, Van Der Wath returned to the blaze to find the others. Back-up from the Vanderbijl Park Fire Station and some off-duty fire fighters who live near the fire station arrived and worked tirelessly to put out the blaze. Five crew members were injured by the blast and transported to hospital. Four of them were discharged later that night, while fire fighter Mahanya was hospitalised for 10 days.
Bennie is one of 16 semi-finalists selected for the 2012 Centrum Guardian Project – a social responsibility initiative by Centrum, that recognises and rewards the acts of courage and self-sacrifice that the people who operate in the emergency services industry demonstrate whenever they put their uniforms on and go to work. To vote for this team of Guardians, sms ‘Instinct’ to 33123. Proceeds from sms votes will be donated to the Vereeniging Fire Station. Smses are charged at R1.50. Terms and conditions apply. The competition runs until October 12, 2012.
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