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Heroic community rallies to contain Fairmount house fire



A raging home fire last Shabbos in the heart of the frum community brought together neighbours and communal emergency workers in an heroic effort.

What was meant to be a quiet Friday night supper with her daughter and a good friend turned out to be “beyond the wildest nightmare” for mother of three, Penny Swisa, of Fairmount in Johannesburg.

While she and her daughter, Tammy, 22, were getting dressed for dinner, they heard what sounded like a “popping” sound coming from outside, like fireworks in the garden.

“I looked out my bedroom window, and what I saw has replayed in my mind repeatedly since then – my cottage was on fire, flames high in the sky, like a tornado,” said Penny, who screamed, “Fire!” and pressed her Community Active Protection (CAP) panic button repeatedly.

Tammy screamed, “There’s a fire!” out her bedroom window to alert the nearest neighbours.

Penny’s immediate thought was what to take with her as they bolted out the door.

“What does one take in a fire? I grabbed my bag that contains my life – identity and bank cards, and driver’s license – and ran outside,” she said.

Her mind immediately raced to her tenant, Corine de Jonge, who lives in the cottage.

“She usually goes to shul and to friends on a Friday night, so I hoped she was there,” she said.

Seeing the flames and hearing the shouts for help, the neighbours alerted emergency personnel.

“Within minutes, there must have been 20-plus emergency service vehicles at my house,” she said.

Corine, who was eating dinner at a nearby home, arrived later when the fire was already under control to see that the entire cottage with all her belongings had been gutted.

“I’m still in shock, my brain doesn’t work, I’ve lost everything,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

Her first thought when she arrived was the safety of her dog, Bibaloo.

“I hadn’t seen Bibaloo in the pool area by the cottage,” said Penny, “nor heard her bark, and was worried. But I couldn’t go in the area where the fire was to try to get her.”

Fortunately, she was hiding in the empty swimming pool.

Corine, who wasn’t allowed inside, felt lost.

“I didn’t know what to do, so I took my dog and went to a friend’s house. It was the weirdest, strangest feeling. There were so many people. I felt like I was a stranger walking through the crowds,” she said.

In the meantime, Penny managed to leash two of her three dogs, who went to a neighbour’s home. “I shoved the cats into their carrier and another neighbour took them. I couldn’t find our little dog. Someone said she was safe, and at the end of the ordeal, I found her hiding in my front garden,” she said.

A few brave neighbours “saved the day”, Penny said.

One of them, Wayne Superfain, said, “It was scary and felt quite dangerous. There were sparks flying everywhere. My avocado tree caught alight.” He and another neighbour in an adjoining property, Steve Nahman, stood on step ladders with water hoses to help douse the flames which were dangerously close to spreading. “We did what we had to do. There was no choice. Thankfully, whatever we did in the moment worked out,” said Superfain.

Firefighters used water from a neighbour’s swimming pool to douse the fire, and people arrived with bottles of water and offered support and assistance.

“The road was cordoned off. There were dozens of neighbours and members of the community standing around. I was with a good friend who was a rock throughout and attended to practicalities such as turning off the electricity mains to my house and cottage,” said Penny.

Said Tammy, “I felt like we were going to lose everything. Everything was all over the place. I was in such a panic, I couldn’t comprehend what was going on. My immediate instincts were to survive, and that involved yelling emergency, running, and calling out for help.”

Corine has been humbled by donations from the community of clothes and goods “from people I don’t even know, it’s amazing”, she said.

Said Tammy, “So many were there to help us before we even asked – our community is incredible. Although we lost the cottage, I’m grateful that my home I’ve lived in my entire life was saved.”

“The community rallied forth as a united force,” said Penny. “We’re filled with immense awe and gratitude towards Zaka along with other community emergency services including CAP, the Community Security Organisation, Fire Ops SA, Hatzolah, and Medi Response for their assistance and support, along with selfless, wonderful Fairmount residents who rallied together to fight the fire at my house. Due to everyone’s efforts, a major catastrophe was prevented. My cottage burnt down, but the houses were untouched. There were no injuries, and the pets are all safe. You’re all heroes. I salute you.”

Penny said looking back, she had felt calm during the ordeal.

“It felt surreal, like a movie. I’m now facing the practicalities and beginning to feel overwhelmed. I’m seeing miracles too – all the mezuzas in my house were checked and attended to last year, and I believe this saved my house. The cottage didn’t have a mezuza on the door.”

Said Zaka, “Emergency services on scene did all they could do to save the property. Significant parts of the property were destroyed, but due to the fast response by the teams on scene, they managed to contain the blaze and no serious injuries were sustained.

“The work we do takes a team and we’re proud to work alongside incredible first responders who all have the same aim of protecting our community around the clock.”

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