I wanted to open our new Blog with an article about an event near Pretoria, South Africa that happened in 1982. The article was written by Dewald Pretorius, GoCrisis Office Manager and Senior Associate.
Dewald was the managing director of an NGO, Self Help Industries for the Blind, and he was present when part of the factory burnt down in the eighties, resulting in loss of life and loss of income – families, employees and the wider community were greatly affected by these losses. Keeping track of the injured, survivors and assisting families was an enormous task. Being unprepared for the media onslaught as the crisis unfolded (this was before the instantaneous news environment that we manage crises in today) added to the challenges and confusion. Managing this terrible tragedy was difficult in a time that crisis management was not a recognised function within businesses. The management learned tough lessons and had to invent a humanitarian response and business continuity solutions in an environment where politics and lack of funds hindered recovery. You may think that we have come a long way since South Africa in the eighties and that this article is out of date and irrelevant. I wish this was true. We may have moved slightly forward, particularly with Health and Safety – but I have to say, many organisations today are still just as unprepared to cope with disaster as this NGO was 34 years ago. As you read this article and the lessons learned, please pay attention to specific challenges such as managing the media, providing support and information to survivors, families and employees and what the obstacles to recovery were. Consider what your organisation has in place should something go wrong today and what resources you will require to get the affected people and your organisation back on their feet again. And remember, GoCrisis can support you every step of the way to ensure readiness, response and recovery.
Disaster at Self Help Industries for the Blind – Dewald Pretorius
The factory building of Self Help industries for the Blind (Itireleng) near Pretoria, South Africa, was at the time (1982) the largest of its kind in the world. It housed nearly 500 disabled workers of whom 350 were visually impaired.
Production at the factory included contract assembly work; traditional cane basketry and furniture; and a mattress factory. It was in the mattress factory where disaster struck on 22 October 1982 when an electrical short caused the foam-chipping machine to catch fire.
The factory was layout was a 5,000m2 open plan, with large portions partitioned off with chai- link fencing and steel frames. The outside walls, reaching a height of 6 metres, had large sliding fibreglass doors – a total of eight, four on each side. Over the years dust of all the activities had accumulated on the brick walls and ceiling. The roof was ceilinged with glass fibre insolation carried by a plastic undercover supported by chicken wire.
When the electric spark struck, an explosion followed and instantly flared the foam dust into an inferno in the mattress department. Employees were inside one of the partitioned areas, with the outside sliding doors closed with only one 3 metre exit to the rest of the factory floor. Instant pandemonium followed and panic spread very quickly among the blind workers. The fire generated its own turbulence and caused the accumulated dust to be blown up into rolling balls which would explode into flames metres from the actual fire.
The fire brigade was called but when they linked their pipes onto the municipal supply hydrants the suction pressure of their pumps were higher than the pressure of water supply. This caused the flexible pipes to go flat and no water could be extracted. The original design of the building in the early sixties did not include a sprinkler system.
Evacuation could eventually be effected, but there were many burn victims and people unaccounted for. The whole building was full of black smoke, mainly due to the plastic cover in the ceiling burning like rubber tyres or oil.
A further serious problem developed very quickly with people from around the area streaming onto the premises – some curious, some spontaneous volunteers, others to find their family members. There was also a large group of looters, stealing as quickly as the equipment and stock could be saved.
With the premises still on fire, and action being taken by the fire brigade with local tap water, the workers were assembled in the hall and a roll call held. Nineteen people were unaccounted for. It materialised later that 18 were taken to hospital by sighted staff and a large contingent of nurses and doctors who ran over from the training hospital which was 500 metres away.
Another big challenge was the newspaper reporters who were on the scene almost instantaneously – running around taking photos. One person remained unaccounted for until the fire brigade reported a possible victim in the factory. On inspection it was one of the blind workers who had succumbed to the fire and smoke. A reporter from a national newspaper kept up with me as I rushed around the site to assess the situation and ensure everyone’s safety, demanding statements and even requesting me to pose next to the victim.
Two days later another blind worker died in hospital. The other victims were all discharged over the next week.
The next morning some workers turned up, others were later seen begging in the streets in town – emotions were of mass depression and despair regarding the future. The newspapers did not contribute positively by showing pictures of blind people crying (one front page was staged by an unknown sighted person posing as a blind victim), images of a burnt-out building and inaccurate reports such as a headline reading “Disaster at blind school!” as opposed to a factory employing adults. The combined effort of management, many workers and the supportive public helped a lot to grow out of this situation over some time, but there were no plans for real emergency and family/victim assistance at the time. We had a qualified nurse and clinic, spiritual leader and two social workers permanently on site and these people contributed tremendously in the aftermath of the incident, especially seeing that the building could only be restored 12 months afterwards. In the meantime, people had to work in makeshift protection corners of the factory.
The financial outcome and resulting problems had an immediate as well as long term effect. Being an NGO (Non-Profit Organisation), a large portion of cash flow depended on state subsidies, with the proviso that it is solely bases on actual hours worked. No provision was made in any regulations for Force Majeure situations. After almost six months this problem could be mitigated.
The seriousness of the commercial income was at this stage looking really insurmountable. Raw material, workspace, machinery and of course frightened workers as well as demanding clients for placed orders just accumulated into one big obstacle. The latter had to be faced as a challenge with speed lest we go under completely. By hook or by crook the problems were half solved by partitioning off part of the lessor scathed building, getting credit and by customers willing to pay in advance.
For many years it was a fact that the whole premises were developed by the South African government in the sixties. The apartheid system however made the portion of the country where the premises were situated into an independent homeland. Suddenly both sides of the political fence denied ownership, while workers had to operate in exposed conditions as well as swirling fibreglass dust. Itireleng had no insurance on the buildings as governments carry their own risks. Complete stale mate. This carried on for two years until a individual had the power of his/her own conviction to get the repairs done and paid for.
Having been in a position of managing this terrible disaster and experiencing the effects this had on the survivors and families, our employees and our community, it still haunts me today. What is even more disturbing is knowing that we could have done so much better in our prevention and response to this disaster had we had access to the knowledge and resources businesses have today. Here are some of the key lessons we have learned:
Routine health and safety:
The following should have been done:
- Appointing of evacuation leaders, assembly points with alternatives that are easily accessible by disabled people
- Regular evacuation exercises (a procedure was in place but not practiced to become a calm routine)
- Regular cleaning, lubricating and testing of doors, locks and walkways for immediate egress and ingress
- Proper fire extinguishing system and water supply
- Regular housekeeping to prevent and/or get rid of dust, floor debris
- Safety checks and certification of equipment
The families concerned should have received much more counselling and support. We were able to give some financial help, especially with regards to funeral costs and a food scheme to support affected families.
- Lack of a plan to steer the organisation with media management in crisis
- Difficulty with key messaging and answering a range of tough question by donors and clients alike
- The communications staff should have had some training, or at least exposure to handling the media, not only from crises, but also for regular news releases and info-articles. This could be achieved through public relations seminars, training by media experts (which was done afterwards)
- Initiative by the marketing manager did however lead to support by a radio station and publication house
Continuation of day-to-day business
- Business had to keep going lest all chances of survival disappear. Having had a good reputation of quality, on-time delivery and reliability, the clients expected the regular service and products, immaterial of disabilities of workers or any crises.
- Raw material should have been in a separate store to spread risks, likewise finished products awaiting delivery
- A specifically appointed team from staff should have been in place to handle anything that could affect normal business operations
- Tenancy and insurance agreements should be in place to mitigate risks as regards reconstruction and bridging of operations (although there was insurance against loss of income for a three-month period, but only as pertaining to sales; no subsidies or donations)