George building collapse owners break silence, death toll now at 13

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THE owner and developer of the five-storey building that collapsed in George in Cape Town, South Africa claiming the lives of at least 13 people, as of Saturday morning, said they will fully co-operate with the investigation into the cause of the tragedy.

Neo Victoria Developments, who said they are the owners of the land and the developer of the property, have broken their silence.

In a statement, the company said it was fully committed and supportive of the investigations to determine the cause of the tragedy and undertook to co-operate fully with all authorities.

“As owners and developers, we are more than shocked and horrified with this catastrophe. Buildings are not built with the purpose to collapse.

“The project team of specialists are appointed to execute the planning, design, and manage construction process and quality of work. As landowners and developers, we have committed to work with the investigating teams to analyse and evaluate whatever is needed as soon as practically possible.”

The construction of a proposed five-storey block of flats, which was to have included a rooftop deck and an underground parking in Victoria Street, collapsed on Monday, with 81 construction workers present on the site.

On the day of the tragedy, there were cleaners, painters, and construction workers on site.

Forty-one workers have been pulled from the debris, with 13 declared deceased. Forty workers remain unaccounted for while 13 patients are currently hospitalized.

Moses Malala, a 35-year-old site supervisor and subcontractor from Bossover Construction, is one of the workers who survived the tragedy.

Malala, who was on the top floor, claimed that a big bang came from one of the floors below him.

“A big sound came from the basement, I went to check and I saw the dust coming up. One second I saw the slab was cracking and going down,” Malala explained.

He escaped with minor injuries to his knee and foot but said some of his colleagues were still trapped below the rubble.

The 42-apartment block, with an estimated value of R39 544 000 was near completion at the time of its collapse.

The construction had progressed up to and included the concrete roof with various other workers busy with service installations. However, there is still no clear answer as to who is to blame for the collapse.

More than 115 hours after the devastation, rescue personnel are still searching for workers trapped under the rubble.

More heavy equipment and machinery have been brought in to remove the more than 3 000 tons of concrete.

The Western Cape provincial government said earlier this week that three independent engineers had been roped in to assess the site, such as Professor Richard Walls, from Stellenbosch University’s structural engineering department.

The George Municipality revealed yesterday that the building plans were approved on July 6, 2023, and issued to the applicant, project architect, Deon van der Westhuizen Architects.

According to the municipality, these plans were only approved once the Building Control Officer was satisfied that the requirements were met.

Van der Westhuizen has declined to comment on his involvement in the project.

“We are not going to give any comment to the media at this time,” he said.

Neotrend Developments have been identified as the responsible party for the development co-ordination and management.

Liatel Developments, the development contractor responsible for the construction on the site, said they were fully committed to co-operating with the authorities to determine the cause of the tragedy.

“We will ensure that a thorough investigation is conducted to understand what led to the collapse.

“We will continue to offer our assistance and support to the community in this difficult time,” Liatel said.

Mitchell & Associates are mentioned as the structural and civil engineers, as well as the principal agent.

The Weekend Argus reached out to the quantity surveyor, Matla Quantity Surveyors, and was informed that a “manager would only be able to respond by Monday”.

The municipality said it had no record of previous safety violations by the developer in the area.

“The normal practice is that the owner and developer, together with their professional team, will have weekly/bi-weekly or monthly meetings and inspections where progress reports are submitted to the owner/client.”

4Front Safety and Security Consultants, the health and safety consultants have also declined to comment on the company’s involvement in the project, but indicated they would respond once the engineers had done an assessment.

Rohann Steenekamp, from Clinkscales Maughan-Brown West, the electrical engineer assigned to the project, said they were assigned to connect electricity to the building but they hadn’t started.

Duane Hodges Consulting Engineer has been also identified as the fire engineer.

Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi said the department’s investigation would be conducted according to the provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS), in particular sections 31 and 32.

Meanwhile, the stability of the site remains a threat to the safety of emergency personnel who have focused their efforts for the past 96 hours on the rescue.

The process of identifying people dead or alive, involves fingerprinting, DNA testing and the use of photographs.

During a press conference in George on Friday, Dr Wayne Smith, from the Western Cape Department of Health and Wellness, together with Premier Alan Winde and provincial police commissioner, Thembisile Patekile, said that DNA testing and fingerprinting were part of the process to assist in identifying people.

The team did not specify in numbers how many were yet to be identified, but said where fingers were intact, fingerprinting would be possible and that facial recognition would involve using photographs, while interpreters would assist with the language barrier.

DNA testing would be utilised in rare cases where family members would be involved.

The team also indicated that helicopter transfer of patients from George hospitals to Cape Town would also begin.

National Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, and provincial Health MEC, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, and senior officials visited victims at George hospitals on Friday.

The George Municipality said the demolition company had created a safe path to drive over the site.