Today’s plan was a simple one, we arranged for a slightly shorter day and the only item on the agenda was to watch the guys at Serekunda Fire Station carry out their training. We thought they’d do some ladder drills and few other basics but nothing with water, as this is a precious resource here. Samba collected us from our digs, as promised, and we traveled toward Serekunda making one visit to Kotu Fire station en-route. The guys at this station were as welcoming as ever and after a short chat and our farewells we headed off again. Paul and I both thought that they were a good bunch and that it was a shame we couldn’t have stayed longer, however, little did we know that we would all be reunited again very soon and under very different circumstances.
We had only been traveling 20 minutes when the call came in, no loud priority radio message, no station sounders, just a mobile phone call and Samba’s words, “there is a very serious fire in Kombo Saint Mary will we respond?” Paul and I are here to learn and observe but before that we are firefighters, there was no discussion we both said yes immediately. Of course we weren’t there to help, just to observe and this proved to be a very difficult task indeed.
We could tell from a distance that it was a going job; smoke billowed, even with the Saharan sand storm going on it was obvious which was the fire. Driving down the back streets in a 4×4 was a difficult task due to terrain, crowds and traffic. On arrival people were screaming and crying and the crowd of onlookers grew by the second. We fought our way through, following samba, to an alleyway rammed with people and smoke, the lads were jetting water into the buildings from the outside while neighbours walked inside to grab furniture and belongings. We both stood watching and biting our tongues while the guys worked with the equipment they had and struggled due to what they didn’t have. They had to walk in and out of a job that engulfed three houses without breathing apparatus (BA). The constant African heat has perished the rubber around the masks and they have all broken. We had the appetite to help but it is not our place, holding back is hard to do especially when you see things that could help them in a small way achieve their goal. Despite the lack of resources and locals hindering their progress; arguing with each other, moving hoses as well as ordering firefighters around, they had a good stop on the job. A “stop” in fire services terms means that they have surrounded and extinguished the fire. The crowd grew even more during operations and we were getting some sideway glances, men piled into an unaffected house to remove property for the family. We stood there thinking what great community spirt and it was, until one guy was accused of stealing, a fight kicked off and they dragged him to the main road, we feared he would become the victim of “mob justice” but luckily Samba took control of the situation and had the police take care of the accused and got him away from the mob. Although stealing from somebody in this manner is intolerable, we are always mindful of the poverty of some people here. That said the majority of people were trying to help and some help was productive whilst some was a hinderance.
Once the fire was extinguished three homes were uninhabitable and a fourth had been evacuated. One resident was due to fly to the USA today but his passport had perished. Samba once again came to this mans aid and called the embassy and flight company, it appears this guy is on a flight for Monday, Samba and his crews have both gone above and beyond as always.
Paul and I both admit the effects we felt today and two things stand out, the lack of breathing apparatus and the energy it took to hold ourselves back from digging in with the crews. The hardest part of that was stopping ourselves pulling back firefighters from committing without BA. All we could do was give them our very sincere praise on our return to the station and provide them with some condensed milk (good for their throats after the smoke) and some biscuits. However they didn’t have time to receive these from us directly as they were called straight out to another “serious fire” so we left them with Samba. On our way back to the hotel we returned to the scene of the fire to talk to Ngange, he wanted to show us his role following these kind of jobs. He provided the basic food requirements and assistance in re-housing where possible. The next stage is to carry out an assessment to get the household more help from NGO’s and government. His job is technically difficult as there are tenants, owners and members of the public involved and all have their own needs and no one to supply them, insurance doesn’t really exist for houses in The Gambia. We then made our way home emotionally exhausted.
There is much to tell of todays events, a lot of which will be discussed with various party’s but is too lengthy to describe here and maybe not proper to do so.