University of Cape Town’s fire: A day of flames, fear, faith – By Emihle January

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Imagine this. You are in your room studying for the upcoming test week or catching up with your sleep or favourite Netflix series. The next thing, you are startled by the sounds of helicopters and sirens in your vicinity.

Suddenly unfamiliarity becomes the familiarity of our reality for a couple of days.

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The hues of deep orange flames and the darkness of the smoke smother the brightness of the sun. Mountains, which would normally illustrate sensational views, were now starting to lose their colour and began to look lifeless and almost non-existent as they were engulfed by the smoke.

This was the day of the fire at the University of Cape Town, on 18 April 2021, a picture that, at the time seemed like a figment of our imagination, but which became a reality to most students who were there when the campus burned.

The fire starts to take hold

It was around 09:00 or 10:00 when I heard the sound of multiple helicopters flying around the area. Out of curiosity, I decided to go outside and my eyes were met by a thick cloud of black and grey smoke. The fire looked small from where I was standing.

I did not think much of what I had just seen. My intuition, however, had been telling me this seemed abnormal and I sensed that something detrimental was about to happen.

I, however, also assumed that I was dramatising the entire situation and decided to get going and resume my studies.

I struggled to concentrate and decided to go outside again. This time around, the smoke was thicker. The temperature became scorching hot – quite abnormal to the level of heat I, coming from Johannesburg, had been used to in Cape Town.

I decided to go back into my room and, as I was about to start studying again, I heard the announcement: “This is an emergency. Please evacuate the building.”

An evacuation

It was in that moment that I knew things were becoming bad. I felt panic. My heart was beating so rapidly and strongly to the point that I thought it would rip out of my ribcage. I was functioning on autopilot.

In the midst of this, our senior house mistress was instructing us to pack only our essentials and evacuate the building as soon as possible. The fear in her tone of voice made me aware of my reality. Despite the chaotic emotions I had to ‘shove’ calmness down my throat.

I grabbed all my essentials and left the residence as quickly as I could.

We all walked to the nearby main road. Silence and immense anxiety became the loudest voices among us. Some students were in a state of distress and panic as they had to leave all their belongings behind.

This was when we all began processing what had just occurred. Tears and trauma became a common sight all around us. Confusion became the language we spoke.

Nowhere to go

The atmosphere surrounding us became filled with the pain experienced when you put salt on a wound. We had no idea where our next meal would come from. We did not know if we would have a roof over our heads that night.

In the same breath, we worried about losing our valued belongings in the fire and about what would become of our academic week as tests were approaching.

Fear was crippling many of us into deeper panic and anxiety attacks. What we had just witnessed and gone through debilitated us. Some students had family in the Western Cape province to come and collect them. The emotion of those without anywhere to go was overwhelming.

Calls from family and friends checking up on us were comforting and simultaneously triggered a torrent of feelings as we did not have answers to most of their questions. The news and news articles coming our way were a resuscitation of the trauma we had recently experienced.

‘Those firefighters saved us’

Through the whirlwind of emotions and laborious times, the frailty and meekness of our spirits were what held us together. It enabled us to bring forth the unfamiliar face of empathy and vulnerability which often tends to remain blanketed when everything goes well.

This trying time required us to search for the strength within one another and within ourselves in order to remain sane while the necessary arrangements were being made for us.

This became the day we were reminded that not all superheroes wore coats. We were reminded about the superheroes whose faces often go unnoticed.

Those firefighters saved us and gave us hope again.

Although the fire burnt numerous valuables to ashes it revived the appreciation of life. It infused us with gratitude for the life we often neglect and take for granted. It reawakened the spirit of ubuntu within our community. It reminded us that we were a part of something greater than ourselves.

This fire reminded us about the importance of answering to our intuition and trusting its adamantine ability of discernment more. It brought to reality the significance of the fire evacuation drills that we never took seriously.

It taught us to relinquish our need for control to Mother Nature and the heavens above. In the midst of chaos and the possibility of death in close proximity, we had no choice but to hold on to hope and faith. We had no choice but to believe that this adversity would, too, pass.

Sunday 18 April 2021 was a day clothed with fear and the anxiety of the unknown. It seemed like a figment of our imagination, but it became our harsh reality.

* Emihle January is a first-year student in business science (finance with accounting) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

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