CAPE TOWN, South Africa – A major fire ravaged South Africa’s 138-year-old Parliament complex on Sunday, devastating offices and causing some ceilings to collapse at a site that has hosted some of the country’s pivotal moments. As firefighters struggled to bring the blaze under control, a dark plume of smoke and flames rose into the air above the southern city of Cape Town.
Around 70 firefighters were still battling the blaze hours after it started in the early hours of the morning, Cape Town Fire and Rescue spokesman Jermaine Carelse said. Some were lifted onto a crane to spray water on the blaze from above. No injuries were reported and Parliament itself had been closed for the holidays.
Visiting the scene, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said one person was “Is detained and is questioned” by the police in connection with the fire. Police later confirmed that a 51-year-old man was arrested.
“The fire is currently in the halls of the National Assembly”, Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille told reporters as smoke billowed behind her from the roof of the historic white building with tall entrance columns. “It is a very sad day for democracy, because Parliament is the home of our democracy.”
“We could not contain the fire in the National Assembly”, she added. âPart of the ceilings collapsed.
Officials said the fire started in the Old Assembly building, which was built in 1884 and originally housed the South African Parliament, but is now used for offices. It has expanded into the new National Assembly building, built in the 1980s, where Parliament now sits.
Authorities feared significant damage to the two buildings, which have crisp white facades, elaborate roof coverings and majestic columns, now all obscured by flames and smoke. There were also concerns that priceless artifacts inside, including a manuscript where the composer first wrote a few lyrics for the South African national anthem, could be lost forever.
Carelse warned that the two buildings were at risk of collapsing.
âThe asphalt on the roof is even melting, a sign of the intense heat. There have been reports of some walls showing cracks, which could indicate collapse â, the News24 website quoted Carelse.
JP Smith, Cape Town’s head of safety and security, said at least one floor of the Old Assembly building was “eviscerated” and its whole roof had collapsed. Firefighters are now focusing their efforts on saving the National Assembly building, he said.
While the Old Assembly building was closely linked to the colonial and apartheid history of South Africa, the National Assembly building was where former President FW de Klerk sat rose when Parliament opened in 1990 and announced that he would release Nelson Mandela from prison and end apartheid. system of domination of the white minority. The news electrified the country and traveled the world.
Security officers first reported the blaze around 6 a.m. Sunday, Carelse said, and the 35 firefighters initially at the scene quickly called for reinforcements. Cape Town has activated its Disaster Coordination Team, which responds to major emergencies. Police cordoned off the complex and closed nearby roads.
De Lille said an investigation was underway into the cause of the fire. Authorities were examining the footage from video cameras and questioning the man arrested at the police station.