Nothing quite rivals the horror of a building on fire.
We look on with morbid fascination as the flames rage.
Sirens wail as fire engines scream to extinguish the blaze and firefighters battle to rescue people trapped inside the building.
This drama played out in a 16-storey building in downtown Durban last year and it is a salutary lesson to any trustee on any body corporate or homeowners’ association anywhere in South Africa.
It is a forbidding tale about the importance of proper advice in insurance and building management.
The block that caught fire is a modern development of more than 200 units.
Here’s what happened on the night of the fire.
The Durban Fire Department, according to news reports, suspected an electrical fault on the 13th floor started the fire near the lift shaft.
Burning embers and debris caused the fire to spread to floors below.
It was a week night and the fire brigade raced to the scene where police and ambulances were at the ready.
Most residents were evacuated though some were trapped on the top floors. They relived the horror in news reports in days that followed.
A resident said he and his family were alerted to the fire by a neighbour who banged on their door late at night and yelled for them to get out.
The parents saw the top floors burning, grabbed the children and rushed downstairs.
Residents watched as firefighters used a crane to rescue neighbours stuck on the upper floors.
ZDFin’s Michael Schaefer says before the fire, insurance cover on the building was restricted and subsequently cancelled because of trustee apathy and negligence.
The trustees had ignored repeated warnings from the building’s insurers and brokers to upgrade the fire equipment to meet minimum requirements.
Schaefer had to pull together the technical expertise to address insurer requirements and while he was doing so, Murphy’s Law had it that in the middle of the project the fire broke out.
There was no cover.
The fire gutted the lift shaft and all associated electrics.
“We had to re-fit all fire related equipment, including a basement parking sprinkler system and new water lines throughout the building.
“We project managed and financed the remedial action (at a cost of about R2 million to the owners) to make the building safe.”
Only then were insurers prepared to offer fire or any other type of cover for the building.
The story has a happy ending in that nobody was seriously injured, the fire-equipment is now working, the building has cover and the trustees are repaying the finance required to remedy the situation.
ZDFin says they’re often called upon to assist bodies corporate/schemes with guidance and professional advice associated with remedial work, in order to be able to get insurance cover.
“The Body Corporate needs to have intact and functioning fire equipment as directed by the National Building Regulations in conjunction with municipal by-laws which includes inter alia the fire reels, fire signage, fire doors, fire extinguishers,” Schaefer says.
“We provide the finance, but also manage the fire equipment installation to ensure that the suppliers do their job correctly. “Often the fire equipment has not only been stolen but the main lines are rusting and need to be replaced in full. We provide the overall professional guidance to ensure this is done by experts who get the job done so it lasts and the body corporate isn’t ripped off.”
Schaefer says when the contractors are finished the job, ZDFin gets the insurance company to send out an assessor to check the work is done to the insurer’s satisfaction and the contractor is only paid on confirmation and once the relevant fire compliance certificate has been issued.