A few days ago we had just finished some shopping at the Uchumi supermarket at the newly built Garden City Mall. As we left the mall and walked through the car park we noticed the commotion of hundreds of people watching smoke billowing from the roof of the six story Standard Chartered Bank building. A few of the workers had made their way onto the roof and were removing tiles to allow the smoke and heat to escape. The roof of a building that’s on fire is possibly not the safest of places to be but quite a few workers seems very happy to be up there, being watched by the huge crowd that was gathering on all the mall balconies and car park levels. As the smoke continued to grow some people decided the safest place to be was as far from the mall complex as possible. The cars queued to leave via the only exit which, incidentally, is also the only entrance! The two lanes provided for entrance and exit were both fully clogged up by cars leaving the mall. At that moment the fire engine arrived. Or at least it tried to arrive – it couldn’t get into the entrance of the car pack due to the cars trying to flee the scene. There was a huge panic as officials tried to get the cars that were trying to leave to back up. The same people that were desperately trying to flee the scene of a six-story building potential about to burst into a flaming fireball were being forced to reverse back down the ramp towards the smoking bank. It was clear that there had been little planning for the eventuality of a fire within the mall. Eventually a route was cleared for the fire engine to drive to he outside of the ground floor of the bank. There was a ramp to the right which allowed vehicles to drive up and around to be outside the 3rd story of the building but they chose the ground floor level.

The smoke was still rising out of the roof and the bank workers were still frantically pulling up roof tiles to allow more heat to escape. Meanwhile the six or seven members of the fire engine crew were busy trying to get the ladder off the fire engine’s roof rack. The ladder was in three parts and it took all of the crew a good few minutes to assemble. Only when they put it in position on the floor and leaned it against the wall did they realize that the ladder only reached up to a point midway between the 2nd and 3rd story of the building! They dismantled the ladder, placed it back on the roof rack of the fire engine and drove the vehicle round the ramp and parked it outside the 3rd story of the building. The ladder assembly process began again. They managed to put it together slightly quicker than the first time – practice makes perfect! Unfortunately, even from the 3rd story, ladder did not quite reach up to the roof of the building. There was a balcony on the adjacent building to the bank where a large group of people had gathered. One of the firemen realized he could go inside the mall, up the escalator and onto the balcony where the people were standing. Four of the other firemen then started to climb the ladder at the same time, each holding a separate part of the hose, aiming to pass it from the fire engine up to the fireman who had reached the balcony.

Meanwhile the bank workers on the roof were still pulling up tiles and the smoke was still rising through the holes – although it seemed to have been dying down a little. The hose reached the fireman on the balcony who was now only one story below the roof. He stood prepared with the hose in his hand aiming up at the roof of the bank. The fireman closest to the tap turned on the hose. Only then did it become clear that the hose had not been used or checked for some time. It was completely ridden with holes and almost all of the water from the tap leaked out of the holes in the hose before reaching the end with the nozzle. Everyone in the vicinity got soaked through before the firemen turned off the tap. They had run out of ideas. Fortunately the smoke had completely stopped and it seemed that the fire had somehow put itself out.

I think the moral of this story is to really try exceptionally hard not to leave a chip pan unattended on your stove while preparing dinner in Kampala.

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