Business as usual after factory fire


A fire fighter chats to children outside the still smouldering ruin of a wing of the Birch’s clothing factory in Grahamstown. The fire started late on Thursday 13 April and fire fighters remained on site throughout Friday. Photo: Steven Lang

(Left) the home of Jean Burgess and her three sons was gutted by a fire on Thursday 13 April which destroyed a wing of the Birch’s clothing factory next door. Photo: Steven Lang

By Sue Maclennan and Chesley Daniels

It’s business as usual for the Birch’s clothing factory in Grahamstown, despite a devastating fire on the eve of Rhodes University’s graduation. The company supplies hundreds of academic gowns for the six graduation ceremonies taking place at the Monument from tomorrow until Saturday. Meanwhile the family whose house on the adjacent property was gutted is picking up the pieces of their lives, as they struggle to get back on their feet.

Like other staff, Director at T Birch & Company Nick Mowbray was shocked at the news of the fire and its devastating effects; however, as far as Rhodes graduation was concerned, it was “one hundred percent business as usual”.

“There have been no interruptions whatsoever,” Mowbray told Grocott’s Mail this week. “Everything ordered for graduation had been made already and none of it was stored on the factory premises.”

Mowbray said while there was extensive damage to the factory’s raw materials stock, a sales office and the cutting room, the area where the sewing is done was unaffected, and there was no damage to the sewing machines.

Many of those who work at the factory live nearby and some rushed to the scene when the fire broke out. Several were distraught and in tears – as much out of shock as the fear they were watching their livelihoods go up in smoke.

However, Mowbray said the buildings were insured and job losses weren’t on the cards.

“As we speak we are making contingency plans to get production going while we rebuild the burnt part of the factory,” he said. “We aren’t anticipating suffering any job losses whatsoever.”

“We’ve ordered more raw materials which we expect will arrive in the next few days. We’re lucky to have a fantastic team of people on the ground who are working hard to get things up and running again. It’s a serious blow but we’ll get through it.”

Mowbray was full of praise for the Makana Fire Services which, he said, had done a fantastic job. The Army’s fire unit assisted on the night of the fire, and Rhodes University brought their water truck.

“We are extremely grateful for them and all the support we’ve had from the people of Grahamstown,” Mowbray said.

Mowbray said there was no indication of the cause of the fire. “Forensic investigators are looking into it,” he said.

‘Things you cannot buy’
Well known cultural activist Jean Burgess was at home when the fire started. Her property adjoins the Birch’s factory, on the side where the fire was, even sharing a boundary wall. Her Froude Street house was gutted.
‘My family’s night of horror’
Citizen reporter Chesley Daniels recalls the terrible night, 13 years ago, when he lost six members of his family in a fire, metres away from last week’s blaze.

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