Towering Inferno – 2002

Towering Inferno – 2002

When a devastating fire swept through one of the country’s foremost holiday resorts, the people of Victoria Falls learnt a valuable lesson in working together as a community.  Here a voluntary fireman gives an eyewitness account of the inferno.

Victoria Falls, one-time outpost, now a tourist Mecca for thousands of visitors from around the world, has changed dramatically since the first travelers stepped off the steam train in the early 1900s.  Back then accommodation was in the rustic brick and iron structures which formed the village’s sole hotel.

Today there are numerous hotels, lodges,shops, restaurants and adventure activities – those who have always loved its unspoilt splendor may argue too numerous – yet despite all this, its residential population is still remarkably small.

But size didn‘t matter when disaster struck the town last year: small it may be, but in times of need the amazing characters which make the Falls what it is today, forgot their differences and sense of business competition and joined forces.   This is exactly what happened when news spread about a fire at one of the Fall’s most prestigious hotels, the Elephant Hills.

The modern, 276-room hotel, re-built in the 1990s after the original structure was razed to the ground by a mortar bomb in the 70s has been home to various conferences, fashion shows and beauty pageants over the years and is managed and run by a team of 350 employees.  It boasts a golf course, two swimming pools, fully-equipped gymnasium, casino and excellent restaurants with stunning views across the Zambezi river into neighbouring Zambia.

At around noon on July 24 Murray black, who was visiting the Falls heard several loud explosions.   One of the town’s residents pointed out that the noise was coming from the direction of the elephant hills Hotel.

He would soon learn that a fire was raging out of control and the sounds he had heard were either gas bottles or air conditioning units exploding.

Initially out of curiosity more than anything else, he jumped into his car and drove to the hotel to see what was happening.

He arrived around 12.30pm to find smoke and flames bellowing out from the corner of the roof above one of the restaurants. “Flames were spilling out on to the roof and we could physically see the fire moving down one of the wings,” said Murray.  “There were a lot of people there when l arrived but it didn’t appear that much was happening.  I was one of many bystanders who watched in disbelief for a while and then volunteered to help the overwhelmed firemen.”

The first fire engines to arrive came from the Victoria Falls municipality.  They were smaller than normal fire engines and the ladders weren’t long enough to reach the flames.

Water was another problem as the town had been experiencing severe water shortages in the days preceding the fire so neither the fire hoses nor the sprinklers inside the-hotel seemed to be working.

However it didn’t take long for back-up to arrive.  The civil aviation fire engine turned up bringing with it a water canon.  The Livingstone brigade soon followed.  By 2pm Murray had joined a group of volunteers who had succeeded in getting the portable pumps to draw water from the swimming pools.

“There was still the problem of not enough ladders and hoses being too short.  It also seemed that the firemen were following behind the fire instead of getting in front of it,” said Murray.

At about the same time the town’s occupants received a variety of messages all saying the same thing: “All hands on deck.” it wasn’t long before the hotel was crawling with people trying to help.  As it was difficult to find anyone in overall control, most people worked in groups on their own initiative.

“People were trying to stop the fire spreading by removing anything that would burn,” said Murray.   Some groups worked at emptying the rooms ahead of the fire of all flammable and valuable items.   Bed linen was thrown out of the windows and TVs and other valuables were carried outside.  People were even trying to tear the thatch off the roof in a desperate attempt to form a fire break.

Then just as things seemed to be going well, two pumps stopped working, the first because someone had poured diesel into a petrol engine and the second because there was no foot valve on the suction hose.  The pump hadn’t been primed before being operated so the engine overheated and seized.

Murray’s group took the hoses from the broken pumps, joined them together and managed to get them up the staircase so that they could use them in front of the fire.

“l was working with lots of different people although l’m not sure who they were.” said Murray.   “There were a lot of guys in ZESA uniforms and l recognised workers from the local supermarket.  The Elephant Hills’ own staff were everywhere doing what they could to help – it was great to see the camaraderie.”

One group of ingenious individuals took the rubbish bins from the rooms and filled them with run-off water.  They then hauled them up the stairs to try and douse the flames.

“There was a real production line going and it was really hard work running up all those flights of stairs with 15 liters of water,” said Murray.

Five grueling hours later things were pretty much under control.

“Everyone was soaking wet and cold,” said Murray.   “l remember being completely amazed when my cell phone rang as every item of my clothing was drenched.   Somewhere in the pandemonium l lost my shoes and my camera.

“There are a few bizarre incidents that stick in my mind.   l remember watching one of the fire engines getting stuck on the lawn and mattresses being used as sand ladders.  Another fire engine drove across the fairway creating a very long new bunker on one of the greens. There were also some lucky escapes.  A woman that was standing by her car in the golf course car park was nearly killed by a gas cylinder that had exploded in the hotel 200 meters away.  It flew into the side of a Mazda truck next to her with enough force to smash in the drivers door and pillar as far as the steering wheel”

Murray left the majestic, now charred hotel soaking wet, filthy dirty and exhausted, but with a feeling of satisfaction that he, like many others on that day, had done all he could to minimise the effects of the fire.

The 141-room golf course wing was not affected, but the 135-room river-facing wing was severely damaged.   ZimSun has closed the hotel for refurbishment and plans to reopen in Christmas 2002.

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