Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Strength of Bottles.


I have never done a proper blog on this, so I thought, better late than never.

Over the years several people have asked me if they might use these pictures for teaching fire safety and the like.

So just for the record, anyone can use them as they like, with no credits or links back necessary.

Just one thing.

If my name is mentioned, make sure to also mention that the fire WAS NOT MY FAULT.

I have not cropped these picture but left them as large as they are.


We had four retail shops, two in Botswana and two in Zimbabwe in 2001.

Anne and I had our house in Botswana but we would travel to Zimbabwe to Elephant Hills Hotel, which was situated in Victoria Falls for three of four days of the week.

Then we would stay in Elephant Hills hotel for the other part of the week, running the other side of our business.

We had a retail shop and a workshop also in the hotel,  and when the hotel was empty, we would rent a permanent room there.

My workshop was upstairs, next to the maintenance workshop of the hotel.


There was my fancy hippie painted bench and then three more benches that my local apprentices worked at.

We were at home in Botswana when we received a phone call from Zim that the hotel was on fire and that we had better come quick.



We did the border crossing bit and when we got to Victoria Falls this was the sight that greeted us.

The hotel was well and truly on fire, no doubt about that.

And the shit had hit the fan with a vengeance.

As with any disaster, no single thing caused it.

Rather a sequence of events.

The maintenance manager was a drunk, and was permanently pissed on duty.


Then, because there was no supervision, one of the maintenance guys tried to arc weld the exhaust of the hotel tumble drier that dries all the sheets and stuff--- while the machine was still running.

The picture shows the outlet where ‘ol Darwin award was welding.

The resultant sparks were carried outside and set the roofing thatch on fire.

But because the maintenance guys were always playing around with the fire alarm horns, when the real fire alarms went off, everybody ignored them, as in-- “it's just the boys having fun again”.

Also, the town of Victoria’s infrastructure was collapsing at the time, and the town council was unable to supply the hotel with enough regular water.

So the drunk maintenance manager used the water of the fire fighting tanks to supply the hotel.

Then when the council water came on again, if he remembered, the fire tanks would be topped up again.

Mostly, he forgot.

He also had forgotten to see if the emergency generator did in fact have diesel in it’s tanks.

It didn’t .

I was well aware of the dangers of fires.

So I had trained my workshop staff once a month in a fire drill.

There were emergency torches, fire extinguishers and an emergency fire drill.

All came to naught, because my staff panicked when the lights went out and they just dropped everything and ran away.

I don’t blame them.

It is unbelievably frightening when the lights go out and people are shouting and the alarms that were screaming go silent and you are in the middle of a pitch dark building.

Believe me, it is as dark as a cave when the lights go out.



These are the two oxygen bottles in the workshop before the fire. The one on the left was empty, and the one in the rear was full, waiting to be connected to the workshop’s system.


The fire was fierce and the fire fighting equipment was somewhat dismal.

Namely because it was being pumped from the ornamental fish pond of the hotel.

This picture shows the end of the fire.

My workshop was just behind the flames and the roof had long collapsed and the strength of the bottles had been shown decisively.


This is a picture of the outside of  9 inch structural wall that the oxygen bottle stood against , shown two pictures ago.

The black full black bottle was the one that exploded.

Note the lift doors.


This picture shows the wall with the lift door behind me.


The black line was where my workshop roof was.

It blew the I beams out the walls and twisted them like pretzels.

There was now blue sky and a good visual of swallows and other migratory birds.


Here is a picture at the same angle of the one showing the two oxygen bottles previously.


Here is the exploded oxygen bottle, filled with burnt thatch instead of compressed gas.


There was a substantial amount of gold and silver underneath all that rubbish, all of which was stolen by the clean up crew.

In fact, for some months afterward, I was approached by several maintenance crew, who tried to sell me back various artifacts from my workshop, like burnt silver jewellery, burnt tools and the like. Local Zimbabweans are very good business people.


Weird scenes in the gold mine on top of the hotel roof.

In an unrelated thing, the maintenance personnel had at the time been fixing a leak in the tubing on the roof of the hotel, and they had left their oxy acetylene combo standing there the day before the fire.

Then the fire took place and in this case the acetylene bottle exploded before the oxygen bottle.


The resultant explosion smacked the oxygen bottle, which was standing next to the acetylene bottle some twenty meters into the radiator of one of the hotel’s chillers.

Chillers are large cooling units, much like air conditioners, but on an industrial scale that are used to cool the hotel rooms.

Note the dents in the oxygen bottle, which is made of some 6mm thick steel.


The force to kick this bottle like this is immense.


However, it was the acetylene bottle that won the Oscars in the end.

It took off from just to the right of the towers in the picture.


And it hit the pickup truck in the door.

The deputy manager of the hotel had moved the van away from the fire into an open place where it would be safer.

Like in the middle of nowhere.

Precisely where the bottle landed.

Something called Murphy’s law.


Extensive damage, including a ruined steering column.

Tow away time.

Talk about being smart and responsible and then just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


The acetylene bottle, spread out and waiting.


Check out how even the thickest part of the bottle split.


From Google Earth, showing the amazing distance the acetylene bottle flew.


The blast bent the roller stand, which surprisingly was still bolted to the floor.


The broken wall removed.


In retrospect, the fire was a good thing-sort of

It made us realize that Zimbabwe was a basket case, politically and economically.

Also, our staff went to the labor department to sue us for money we no longer had there.

It is surprising how staff who have been working for you for almost ten years will turn on you.

Then soon after, when the staff of the second shop organized an inside job robbery and stole all the jewellery of that shop, we closed everything down and ceased all business there.

The good/bad news was that the country is even more of a basket case so it was good that we made a clean break and went to St. Maarten.

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