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In South Africa, 22 dead as fire destroys church-owned nursing home

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Pieter Wessels Home burned to the ground Sunday night

August 04, 2010 | Nigel, Gauteng, South Africa | Ebrahim Ishmail/Transvaal Conference

The death toll has risen to 22 in the wake of a nighttime August 1 fire that destroyed the Pieter Wessels Frail Care facility, owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church's Transvaal Conference. The Wessels home, which serves low-income elderly, is in Nigel, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) southeast of Johannesburg.

Initially, 17 were reported dead at the scene, officials said. Another person died from an apparent heart attack following the blaze. Media reports in South Africa on August 4 indicated an additional four people died while hospitalized.

By the time the night staff stumbled upon the scene of the fire just before 9 p.m. local time, the heavy smoke overwhelmed them, curbing efforts to douse the fire. The fire soon spread via curtains to the ceiling, setting the roofing timbers ablaze. Local emergency services were immediately summoned.

The 102 residents, many in their nineties, who have been in 24-hour care were the focus of the rescue effort. Staff and rescuers managed to carry out 84 residents who could save only what they were wearing. When firefighters brought the fire under control round about 11 p.m., 17 bodies were carried out.

Local volunteers and churches from other denominations stepped forward and offered temporary shelter for the survivors.

The fire destroyed all the residents' possessions, including medication and personal documents and patient records.

Some of the staff, who number 80, were gathered outside the premises this morning and were visibly affected by the traumatic event.

Provincial government officials were on hand quickly to offer their assistance in managing many aspects of the tragedy. Rescue officials were still on the scene the following morning, along with forensic experts who sifted through the ruins for evidence of how the fire was started.

The Transvaal Conference is deeply affected by this tragedy, officials said. A recovery plan has been implemented to develop immediate plans to re-house residents and find alternate employment for staff.

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