Wind restarts fire engulfing South Africa’s parliament, homeless man charged

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – A fire engulfing South Africa’s parliament continued to rage as night fell on Cape Town on Monday, after strong winds reignited the blaze that firefighters had declared under control just hours earlier.

A 49-year-old homeless man has been charged over starting the inferno which broke out early Sunday and has devastated the parliament complex, collapsing the roof of the National Assembly and threatening historic treasures.

After a struggle that stretched into Sunday night, the fire was believed to have been brought under control, with exhausted firefighters leaving the site to the cheers of onlookers and journalists.

But temperatures in the smouldering houses of parliament were still around 100 degrees Celsius (210 degrees Fahrenheit), rescue workers warned.

Then the wind picked up and shortly before 5PM on Monday, a thick column of smoke sparked fresh fears – within minutes flames were again pouring out of the windows and roof of the building.

As night fell on Monday, firefighter spokesman Jermaine Carelse said “who knows” how much longer it would now take to bring the fire under control.

“It’s proving difficult in this wind,” Carelse told AFP, adding that the fire had started again in the roof of the National Assembly building.

Tackling blaze … When the fire restarted, only a dozen firefighters were still deployed from the around 70 who had fought to tame it (AFP/RODGER BOSCH)
Engulfed … The blaze was initially brought under control after a struggle that stretched into the night (AFP/RODGER BOSCH)

The day before, the fire tore through the wooden room where MPs normally sit. Carelse said such was the devastation that a parliamentary session would not be held there for a long time.

Parliament spokesman Moloto Mothapo said “the entire chamber where the members sit… has burned down.”

Many firefighters had left the site once the flames were brought under control, but rushed back on Monday, with 60 still working into the night.

New equipment capable of projecting water from great heights also arrived at the scene.

The police said that a 49-year-old man had been arrested and would appear in court on Tuesday charged with “housebreaking, arson” and damaging state property.

No casualties have been reported in the fire, but the damage to the nation’s parliament has shocked the country.

The fire started at around 5AM on Sunday in the wood-panelled older part of the complex – a section that once housed South Africa’s first parliament.

Completed in 1884, the historic section is where parliament keeps treasures including around 4,000 heritage and artworks, some dating back to the 17th century.

The older section’s roof was completely destroyed, but the priceless collection of books and artworks was believed to have been spared.

The fire then spread to the neighbouring newer National Assembly.

The third building in the parliament complex houses the upper house National Council of Provinces.

It is still inaccessible but firefighters believe the damage there is mainly due to smoke and the water used to battle the blaze. The building’s priceless artefacts are also believed to have been saved.

A government delegation met mid-Monday with experts and engineers to establish an initial evaluation of the damage, but was interrupted by the fire restarting. A preliminary report is due on Friday.

Investigators said the fire broke out in two separate areas and the water sprinkler system did not work as it should have because the water was cut off.

Surveillance cameras showed the man who was later arrested in the buildings at around 2AM.

“However security only saw him at 6AM, when they looked at the screens after being alerted by the smoke,” Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille said.

“We do have these flare-ups after a fire has been extinguished, but we didn’t expect it to be this bad,” she said.

The fire broke out just a few hundred metres from St. George’s Cathedral, where anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ashes were interred on Sunday while the blaze raged, a day after his state funeral.

In March another fire also broke out in the older wings of parliament, but it was quickly contained. – AFP

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