Bank of Lisbon fire: Critical failures by government departments and emergency services uncovered in investigation report five years later

The Bank of Lisbon was demolished in 2019, more than a year after three firemen lost their lives on September 5, 2018. File Picture: Karen Sandison / Independent Newspapers

The Bank of Lisbon was demolished in 2019, more than a year after three firemen lost their lives on September 5, 2018. File Picture: Karen Sandison / Independent Newspapers

Published Nov 7, 2023


Five years after a fire razed the Bank of Lisbon in the Johannesburg city centre, which killed three firefighters and left many injured, the Gauteng Legislature received final reports from different entities that launched investigations into the incident.

The fire broke out on September 5, 2018 inside the 101 metre-high building, with speculation around the cause of the fire resulting in a number of investigations by state entities. The 23-floor building housed the Gauteng departments of Human Settlements, Cooperative Governance, Traditional Affairs, and the Provincial Health Department.

In a report to the Gauteng Legislature last month, the Department of Employment and Labour found the fire suppression system was not installed in the offices by the tenant departments.

It found the tenant departments did not conduct the risk assessment, regular inspection of the electrical installation and appliances was not done, and the departments failed to ensure that firefighting equipment was serviced and in good working condition.

The fire started from an electrical machinery outlet on the 23rd floor of the building, which was occupied by the Department of Health.

“When the fire spread, wooden furniture became a catalyst fuel to spread the fire.

“From the expert report of the fire department, the automatic fire suppression system, if installed, would have kicked in if the hand-held and fire hose equipment were/were not used because of the fact that employees were evacuating the building,” the report stated.

It was also found that emergency services personnel failed to conduct the task-based risk assessment to map the approach to extinguishing the fire, which would have realised the shortfalls around water reticulation and routes for emergency services staff to escape if they ran into problems while firefighting.

Instead, they went into the building without discussing an approach.

The fire engines did not have radios for external communication with the control room or crew members that were inside the building. The platoon commanders also lacked experience and depth of knowledge for such an incident of this magnitude.

This resulted in the deaths of firefighters Simphiwe Moropane, Mduduzi Ndlovu, and Khathutshelo Muedi.

A forensic investigation by TFS Africa found that, based on “probabilities of facts”, the fire started as a result of flammable material in the surrounding area of a heater, such as files and toilet paper, that caught alight and spread.

The report recommended that an annual audit be conducted at all government department buildings to advise and correct shortfalls during a fire safety inspection, as well as frequent fire drills to ensure people evacuate safely.

Harris Nupen Molebatsi Attorneys said there may be a prima facie case of negligence against one of the employees who left the bar heater on unsupervised and close to flammable material.

However, the police investigation is still ongoing.

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