Fire guts NGO offices

The Raphael Centre has thanked the individuals and organisations who rallied to their support after a devastating fire in the organisation’s offices on Friday and have assured Grahamstown they will continue services to the community while they re-establish their physical base. The NGO works with communities and individuals affected by HIV/Aids.

A resident in a flat opposite the 67 Bathurst Street building said he saw smoke and flames coming from the right-hand windows of the Centre’s upstairs offices around 7pm Friday 31 March. The Makana Fire Services were alerted and were assisted by Rhodes University, which dispatched a water truck. Police blocked off Bathurst Street to traffic while the owners of several businesses in the area watched anxiously.

In an extraordinary show of support, dozens of members of the mostly Muslim business community from the area and further afield arrived in bakkies and flatbed trucks to empty the furniture shop directly below the burning offices.

The fire was under control by around  9pm. Assistant Director of Makana Fire and Rescue Services William Welkom, who was at the scene, said the fire was under control, although officers were monitoring the offices to prevent it flaring up again and contain it on one side of the building.

He said there were no injuries. “No one was here when it happened,” Welkom said.

However, there was some water damage and staff who went to inspect the building Saturday morning reported blackened walls  and soot.

Three fire fighting vehicles had been put into action and Rhodes University dispatched their water tanker in support.

Welkom said there had been no damage to the Sunflower Hospice Shop, downstairs in the same building, and that the office of an accounting firm also on the top floor appeared to be intact.

SAPS officer in charge at the scene Lieutenant-Colonel Coenie Stander said all Grahamstown officers on duty had been mobilised. Confirming there had been no injuries, Stander said no foul play was suspected and no case had been opened for investigation.

In a statement yesterday, the Centre said they are determined to continue their work, despite losses that for the small NGO represent years of work and include vital records.

Director Mary Humphreys, who together with other staff and Board members went in to inspect the damage the next morning, said her office was a shell.

“Even the plaster has been burnt off the walls,” Humphreys said.

“This means that all records, funding reports and contracts, our original NPO certificate, Tax Clearance Certificates, budgets, finances, documentation for the past few years have been demolished along with books and other items of work and personal value.  

“The wall between the Director’s office and the HIV Counselling and Testing office was burnt down so we have lost all our donations, records of HIV tests, our precious tent and all information relating to follow-ups.  

“Luckily, the staff files were protected by a filing cabinet and gratefully, all the information relating to our audit has been backed up.”

However, because the backup was not off-site, it wasn’t certain that the backup has survived.

Humphreys thanked the people who have reached out to help the organisation.

“Your support – in person, the calls and messages – has been invaluable,” she said.

“Thank you too to the staff for your positive response in a difficult situation.  And finally, special thanks to the Board, many whom were on site to comfort and share courage.

“I think we are all still in a stage

of shock, but rebuilding will be next on the agenda.”

This week Raphael Centre staff will all be participating in training provided by Canadian facilitators from the Coady International Institute, which . builds leadership to create sustainable community development.

Rhodes University has again come to the Centre’s assistance, offering an alternative venue for the training, through its Community Engagement office.

“Thanks to [RUCE Director] Di Hornby we will be spared confronting the office problem in the short term,” Humphreys said..

However, the Raphael Centre is urgently looking for new accommodation and will need considerable help short-term with even the basics – “stationery, a printer, a tent, a phone line and internet connectivity”.

“But we will use what we have to continue to work hard to bring health and caring to the Grahamstown community.”

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A fire engine in the foreground as flames fill the top-floor offices of the Raphael Centre during a fire on Friday night. Photo: Sue Maclennan
A fire engine in the foreground as flames fill the top-floor offices of the Raphael Centre during a fire on Friday night. Photo: Sue Maclennan