Lauren Rawlins, Leanne Jansen, Sihle Manda and The Post
Durban – The owner of the building that collapsed in Tongaat on Tuesday has confirmed that plans for the shopping mall had not been passed.
Late on Tuesday night, at least one person was known to have died, 29 had been injured and another 20 people were thought to be buried under rubble after the shopping centre development collapsed.
The injured were taken to Victoria Hospital in Tongaat and to Umhlanga Hospital, and one critically injured patient was flown to the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital.
A paramedic at the scene said the site of the search and rescue operation was “unstable” and “dangerous”.
“We have to remove the cement little by little to see what is underneath,” he said. Paramedics also did not know how many people they were searching for.
Controversial businessman Jay Singh confirmed on Tuesday night that the mall was being built by his company, Gralio.
According to Singh, it was not uncommon in the building industry for developments to begin before plans had been passed by the municipality.
He said: “Often you start building without plans being passed. But even if the plans had been passed this incident would still have happened because this was an engineering problem. It had nothing to do with the plans.”
Singh rose to prominence when he took over the Durban municipal bus service under the company Remnant Alton. The company was subsequently liquidated.
Singh’s other company, Woodglaze Trading, secured contracts to build low-cost housing across the city. Several tenants have taken Woodglaze to court over what they believe is shoddy workmanship.
Work on the shopping mall in Tongaat began in 2010. However, before contractors moved on to the site, more than a hundred residents had to vacate SJ Mansions flats to make way for the project.
Singh said he had done everything that he needed to do in respect of the mall development.
“This is a big tragedy. But everything was aboveboard. I’m flying the engineers out this evening (Tuesday) from Johannesburg to find out what went wrong. They inspected everything and passed it.”
According to Singh, construction of the mall started about six months ago and it was expected to open in April next year. Spar had been confirmed as the anchor tenant in the 16 000 square metre multi-storey development.
Tongaat community leader Brian Jayanathan waged a battle against the construction of the mall.
Jayanathan, an eThekwini councillor for ward 61, said in an interview that there was a court order in place to stop the development, but that this had been ignored.
“They were racing to get this finished for Christmas,” he said.
He said the project started in 2010 but was fraught with delays because the property developers did not abide by eThekwini building regulations.
Durban’s deputy mayor, Nomvusa Shabalala, who was at the scene on Tuesday night, told journalists that the municipality had ordered that construction work be stopped on the site a month ago.
“Processes were not followed. There should have been no construction.”
On Tuesday night, Thabo Mofokeng, the communications officer at the municipality, said: “The municipality can confirm that the plans for the building were not passed. We can also confirm that action was taken by the municipality to stop construction on the site.
“The municipality is currently in the process of gathering more information surrounding the construction and the incident that occurred. We will thereafter release a more detailed statement.”
Mervyn Govender of the Phoenix Residents’ Association said: “We have warned government before about Jay Singh’s shoddy construction. Had they listened to us this calamity would not have happened. Innocent lives have been lost.”
Meanwhile, emergency services including sniffer dogs from different parts of the province were summoned to Tongaat.
The incident happened just before 5pm when workers would have ended their shift.
Noel Gabriel, a Tongaat resident, was one the first people on the scene. The father of five arrived home from work when he heard a loud bang. “I ran to the scene and managed to pull five people to safety.
“It was like something out of a movie,” he said. “The workers were screaming and running around in a state of panic. It is the first time something like this has happened in Tongaat.”
Fiona Moonean, who lives across the railway line from the building site, in a house that faces the new development, saw the tragedy unfolding.
She was at the kitchen sink washing up at 4.30pm when she looked out of the window and saw the slab come down.
As builders removed scaffolding from the third floor, the massive slab of concrete it had been supporting crashed to the ground. A cloud of dust engulfed the area and through it all people screamed.
“Workers were taking out the scaffolding and then, suddenly, there was too much scaffolding coming out and a 200m-long concrete slab came down on to the people. It was like a blast, but even over the noise I could hear screaming. I saw workers running out, then everything disappeared in the cement dust. When the dust settled those same workers ran back in to rescue their colleagues,” she said.
Late on Tuesday night, at least 100 emergency workers were searching for survivors in the rubble. Search and rescue dogs were brought in to find any signs of life. A surgeon from ER24 was on the scene doing a partial amputation to a man’s limb.
The aunt of one man still trapped beneath the rubble, Janet Khumalo, said she did not know if he was still alive.
Khumalo, a slight figure, made her way from the nearby Harry’s Farm on foot to get to the scene. There was no one to transport her.
“I just ran. I just want to see him.”
Her nephew, Mfano Khumalo, is 20 years old and an orphan. She had received a frantic message from a neighbour who also works on the site, telling her of the accident.
“He told us that they heard the structures collapsed and they tried to get his attention, but he didn’t move out of the way fast enough. He said they assume he was buried in the rubble.”
A nearby shopkeeper, who only identified himself as Shan, said he heard a big blast.
“I knew something was wrong, I was afraid to come out of my shop. After five or 10 minutes I heard sirens and saw ambulances and police cordon off the place. People were rushing to the scene and that’s when I was told of the building collapse.”
On Tuesday night, the Tongaat community had rallied and were bringing food and cooldrinks to rescuers who were expected to work through the night.
Spotlights had been set up at the scene and the hum of generators created an eerie backdrop to the desperate search for life.
Rescuers were on top of the rubble trying to find a way to move the massive slabs to see if there was some way of getting at the people who were thought to be trapped underneath.
The Mercury and The Post