By Richard Muponde
Tragedy struck Plumtree High School on Tuesday night when a double storey hostel was reduced to a shell in an inferno that also destroyed property worth tens of thousands of dollars.
School authorities suspect the fire was deliberately started shortly after 9PM to conceal theft at the hostels. A history teacher, identified as Mr Ndlovu who was housed in an apartment on the ground floor of the monumental Lloyd Hostel which accommodates Upper Sixth pupils, discovered the fire.
Mr Ndlovu was reportedly sleeping while his children watched television when he heard the crackling blaze emanating from the upper floor directly above his apartment.
He alerted others including the school head, Mr Sipho Khumalo. The group summoned the Plumtree Fire Brigade after trying in vain to extinguish the fire with horse pipes.
A Chronicle news crew arrived minutes after the fire brigade.
The fire brigade could only watch the hungry flames devour the building after their fire tender malfunctioned and failed to release water.
The crew finally sent an SOS to the Bulawayo Fire Brigade — about 100km from Plumtree Town — which arrived after two hours with a 5 000 litre fire tender.By then, the building had been reduced to a shell.
The fire crews battled the fire together for about an hour and half. However, the smouldering flames were stubborn largely due to wooden roof trusses and mukwa fittings such as on floors, doors and window frames which decorated the building. They ran out of water around 1:30AM and went into the CBD to reload before coming back an hour later and eventually winning the battle around 3AM yesterday.
The hostel was empty of pupils when tragedy struck as schools closed last week with only Mr Ndlovu and his family occupying the building at the time. He lost all his property and documents except for a few items.
Briefing Plumtree police officer-in-charge, Inspector Ginger Vhiyano who was leading a team of police officers at the scene, Mr Khumalo ruled out any electrical fault but pointed to theft and arson.
“I don’t think it’s an electrical fault because everything was intact. What I suspect is that someone could have stolen from the side where the fire started. That’s where all the pupils left their belongings going for school holidays. Someone could have set the building on fire to conceal theft,” said the headmaster.
His sentiments were corroborated by the Plumtree fire crew who said if it was an electrical fault, Mr Ndlovu’s apartment could have been affected also because there was going to be a blackout, but he had electricity when the fire started.
The hostel burnt down at a time when former Plumtree High School pupils, referred to as the Prunitians, were renovating the entire school. They recently donated 3 000 litres of paint valued $9 000 to the institution to help spruce it up.
Bulawayo Fire Brigade senior divisional officer, Mr Edward Mpofu, said: “We are not aware what caused the fire. Plumtree Fire Brigade is investigating, maybe if they fail to find the cause they might seek our assistance.”
Plumtree chief fire officer, a Mr Mthethwa, could not be reached for comment as his mobile phone was unreachable while the town secretary, Mr Dumezweni Davies Luthe, said he was out of the country.
However, Matabeleland South deputy police spokesperson Assistant Inspector Loveness Mangena said preliminary investigations revealed that the fire emanated from an electrical fault.
Residents at the scene had no kind words for the Plumtree Fire Brigade which they said was ill-equipped to respond to fires in the town.
In July last year property worth tens of thousands of dollars was destroyed after a complex in the central business district was gutted. The building, which is located about 60 metres from the Plumtree Town Council offices, housed a driving school, private college, hardware store, micro finance company, a general dealer and dressmaking shops among other businesses. – The Chronicle