The text comes through at three twenty one on a perfectly ordinary afternoon. I’m sitting in my room going through some lecture notes when I read the brief message. Seconds later, I’m in flight, heart pumping wildly as I dash out of Mercy House. Sure enough, thick smoke curls into the sky a few blocks to the north. I push the quick dial number for Lindiwe’s cell phone as I start running through the streets. Towering buildings block the sun. “Lindiwe! Have you called emergency services?”
“It’s me, Buhle, and no I haven’t. I’m scared, Pumzile.”
“Is your mama there?”
“Yes, but she’s sleeping. She’s really sick today.”
“Do you know if the fire is above or below your floor?”
“It seems like it’s above.”
“I’m going to call the fire department, and then I’ll ring you back. You need to wake your mama up and get her downstairs.”
I cut the call and dial 10111. “There’s a building on fire in Hillbrow!” I pant out the address as my feet pound the pavement. Has anyone else seen the smoke? Are there rescue crews on the way already?
I call Buhle back. “Use the stairs,” I shout as she answers the call. “Don’t go in the lift.”
“I’ve got Mama up. I’m trying to get her to walk now.”
“I’m coming to meet you. Just keep going as quickly as you can. The fire brigade is on its way.”
I burst through the doors and run across to the stairway. Then I think of others in the building and backtrack to look for a fire alarm. The square of grimy glass is barely visible against the filthy wall. I smash it with the heel of my sandal, the impact shuddering up my arm. The handle moves easily enough and jangling bells sound.
My thoughts back on Buhle and Lindiwe, I pull the swing door open and run up the stairs. One, two, three, four, I count the floors off. The acidic tang of smoke fills the stairwell, and I pass a handful of people clattering past me. “Ukuvala,” they shout. “Turn around, the building’s on fire.” Muffled explosions echo above as they continue downwards, voices fading, women wailing. There is little light as I push myself on. The power to the building was cut off years ago and dirty glass panels in the stairwell doors admit a faint glow.
“Buhle!” I shout. “Lindiwe!”
I’m between the fifth and sixth floors when a human tornado hurls herself at me, sobbing. “Pumzile, Mama’s lying on the floor! I can’t move her!”
My lungs burn with exertion as I follow Buhle up a few more steps and see Lindiwe slumped on the landing, eyes
closed. She’s even thinner than the last time I saw her and bones jut at awkward angles. The smoke is thicker now and cascades down the stairs, a waterfall of noxious fumes. “Buhle, I’ll get your mama out, but I want you to go now! Run until you’re outside!”
“Go!” I shout, giving her a shove. “You need to go now!”
She grabs the bag lying next to Lindiwe and runs off sobbing as I try and haul her mother to her feet. “There’s a fire, Lindiwe. We have to get out!” There’s little response so I squat down and push my arms under her. Her body is frail and light but awkward to carry as her head flops backwards. The smoke is even thicker now, and I cough as I struggle down a few steps. “Help me, God. Don’t let us die up here.”
An explosion shakes the building and I startle, heart racing even faster. I pass a grimy five on the wall. I’m not moving quickly enough. I have to escape before the smoke overtakes me. Lindiwe may be light, but she’s a dead weight and my muscles burn. My arms feel like they’re pulling out of their sockets. I make it to the next landing, tears tracking down my face, sweat drenching my body. The smoke is thinner here, and I pause for a moment, trying to keep Lindiwe from slipping out of my arms. She stirs slightly and coughs as she sucks in a deep breath. I set off again, arms straining, weakening until finally I collapse on the stairs, Lindiwe sprawled half on top of me.
“Help!” I splutter, a cough smothering my voice. “Help us!”
As I’m struggling to move, I hear steps pounding up the stairs and a man hurtles around the corner. “Whoa!” Strong arms lift Lindiwe from me. “Is there anyone else up there?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on then. You go ahead.”
I stagger down the stairs, sweat soaking my shirt, relief energising me now that I’ve transferred my burden to someone else. Another explosion sounds above us, and the stairwell shudders. I imagine glass shattering from windows and flames consuming walls, floors collapsing, and possessions incinerating. If this was a taste of hell, I would be an instant convert.
The fire crew meets me on the first floor landing, and a tall fireman puts an arm around my waist. “You’re almost out,” he says as he half carries me down the remaining stairs. The air outside is cool by comparison and black flakes swirl in the breeze. The fireman helps me towards a group of people huddled against a building in the next street. “Go and get yourself checked,” he says, pointing to three ambulances parked near the crowd.
We make a sad knot of humanity, and I’m guessing my face mirrors the shock and disbelief on the faces of those around me. A cough hacks its way out, and I lean against a wall, nausea playing with my stomach. I want to ask the
fireman about Buhle and Lindiwe but he’s gone, absorbed into the fire crew and policemen around the base of the building. Fire engines are in position and jets of water surge towards the upper floor windows. Flames flicker and thick black smoke streams out.
I lean against the wall scanning the crowd, searching for two familiar faces. A few seconds later Buhle appears. “Pumzile!” She throws her arms around me, burying her head against my chest. “Where’s Mama? Is she safe? Why isn’t she with you?”
“She’s okay,” I say, hoping the stranger managed to get her out. “A man came and carried her for me.” We cling to each other for a while before I point at the ambulances further down the street. “They probably took your mama to one of those. Shall we go and have a look?”
The stranger is standing near the first ambulance chatting with a paramedic, and I head straight for him. “Is she all right? The woman you carried down the stairs for me?”
He turns to look at me, and the compassion in his eyes catches me by surprise. He’s about six foot tall, dark-skinned with short dreadlocks and a genuine smile. Mid-twenties, I guess, and he’s dressed in paint-spattered overalls. “She’s being treated for smoke inhalation,” he says gesturing to the ambulance. Then he looks back as a cough tears through my lungs. “You don’t sound so good yourself.” He puts a strong arm around me and guides me towards one of the other ambulances. “You need to be checked out as well.”
“There’re other people who need help more than I do.”
“You still need to be checked out.”
Buhle tugs on my arm. “I’m going to see Mama.”
I nod as the man steers me forwards. Minutes later, I’m propped up in an ambulance with an oxygen mask on my face, my new friend standing next to me holding my hand. Thoughts race through my mind. It’s amazing how a crisis bypasses social etiquette. People instinctively reach out to help each other, holding, hugging, crying, and drawing comfort from touch.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Joshua. And yours?”
“Pumzile.” Another cough tears my chest, and I try and suck in oxygen. An hour ago, I was working on a psychology paper in Mercy House, and now I’m struggling to breathe. Will Lindiwe recover from this? Her health is at an all-time low, and I worry about her. It’s not good for Buhle to be her caregiver at such a young age and certainly not safe. Chamberlain Court is little more than a flophouse and drug den and is not the place for a young child to live. I’ve begged Lindiwe to move to Mercy House where we can look after them both, but she’s refused every time. Maybe now she’ll have no choice.
The paramedic reappears and checks my pulse. “Your heart beat is steadier, which is a good sign. We’re just going to move the ambulance a couple of blocks away. The fire crew are concerned about the smoke and possibility that the fire might spread to neighbouring buildings.”
She turns to an elderly man who lies in the other bed, a large dressing on his left arm. His eyes are shut, and he moans softly. “How’s the pain?” she asks, and he shakes his head. “We’re just going to move, and then I’ll increase the dosage for you.”
I notice a drip taped into the back of his right hand and say a silent prayer for him as the ambulance rumbles to life.
“The streets are crowded,” Joshua says, peeking through the back door. The police have taped them off, but there’re hundreds of people out there.”
The smell of smoke is strong, but I’m not sure if it’s in the air or in my lungs. Maybe both. It’s not the sweet aromatic smoke of the wood fires we cook on in Impendle. It’s acidic, poisonous and bitter, restricting airways, and choking off life.
The enormity of the fire hits home. I can go back to Mercy House tonight, but Lindiwe, Buhle and dozens, maybe hundreds of other people have lost their homes and possessions. Hillbrow is a damaged community as it is, and this will only add to the problems and pain. I struggle upright, retching as a cough starts in my lower chest and tears at my lungs.
Joshua lays his free hand on my back. “Breathe the oxygen. Deep breaths. You’ll be alright.”
I force myself to relax and slowly air filters through. When I try and speak, I can’t form the words and tears burn behind my eyes, forcing their way out in warm streams. Joshua tightens his grip on my hand. “Is there someone I can call for you?”
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