Denizens of the parallel Randall and Mechlin Streets woke up early yesterday morning to a fire that, by 9:00 a.m., had rendered three high-rise buildings condemned, and a fourth partially burned on the top floor.
The buildings were occupied by Lebanese-owned businesses including PowerTech, a generator, lubricants, and propane dealer; PowerNet, an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) service provider; Stop & Shop Supermarket; and Eagle Electrical Corp. - all mostly on the Randall Street side.
A charcoal dealer who kept a small storage room adjacent the PowerTech warehouse told the Daily Observer early that morning, she came to collect a consignment of charcoal and noticed smoke from the warehouse and raised alarm but no one took heed.
"Around 7:45, I started to see smoke coming from inside the building. I knew there was fire in the building, and when I said it, people didn't take it seriously," she narrated.
By 10:00 a.m., that building was engulfed in flames that spread to two other buildings, subjecting their concrete walls to intense heat pushing them to the verge of collapse. Some men used long two-by-four timbers to safely push down cracked walls inward to prevent them from trampling on nearby properties.
Others stood on roofs of their homes as people handed them buckets and tubs of water to help quench the fire
Up to press time, the cause of the fire was not yet established and the building in which the fire started, was still smoldering. Local residents said they believe that the fire which started in an adjacent warehouse was made worse by lubricants stored there by PowerTech, a local company dealing mainly in the sales of electric power generators.
One of the businessmen affected by the fire said, "We lost everything. We don't know what we are going to do. Everyone is so confused right now."
Firefighters from the Liberia Fire Service (LFS) and the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC), with help from the Liberia National Police (LNP) who cordoned off the affected portion of Randall Street, were on the scene well into the afternoon.
It was observed that local residents were seen using water to quench what was suspected to be a chemical fire made worse caused by fuel stored in the warehouse. All stores on that part of Randall Street immediately shut their doors in response to the alarming situation.
The Mechlin Street side, however, was both a scene of survival and good neighborliness at work. Residents of the congested community between Randall and Mechlin streets made frantic efforts to bring the fire under control.
As men, women, and able bodied youths hurried in and out of the alleys with containers of water on their heads, groups of young men who supply water to homes and businesses on "push-push" (large pushcarts) for money, offered for free their many gallons of water to help put out the fire.
When asked whether the water-sellers were charging a fee for the water, they answered, "no."
In another instance of selflessness, a homestead across Mechlin Street offered its well to the community members who took great risks to brave the odds in order to fight the fire that threatened their own make-shift homes.
One of the young men told the Daily Observer that the homestead well was the last functioning water well in the community that morning, as the others had already been depleted in the rescue mission.
Fire on Randall Street, Feb. 20, 2018
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On Randall Street, people watched with wonder as the firefighters shot water into the buildings
On Randall Street, stores were closed as police cordoned the area
From Mechlin Street, people found whatever they could to draw water to fight the fire
A woman brings water to table where a man lifts it to others on the roof to fight the nearby fire.
People stood to watch as others braved the flames to protect their homes
Domestic water sellers (front) willingly gave their supply to help fight the fire, as a homestead (across the street) opened their well to provide more
This homestead well on Mechlin Street was the closest to the fire and reportedly the last resort, as others in the area were depleted
People watched with concern, while urging those on the roof, fighting the fire, to be careful
Upper floors of the buildings gutted by fire
From right: Eagle Electrical, Stop & Shop supermarket and PowerTech had their upper floors damaged by the fire
Upper floors of PowerTech building gutted by fire
Upper floors of buildings gutted by fire
People filled up whatever vessels they could find, including empty margarine buckets, jerry-cans, regular buckets, and washing tubs, with any water they could find. Some even went to the extent of drawing water from the open public sewage running through that community, as a means to fight the fire.
Meanwhile, armed police were posted on Randall Street to protect the store fronts of the affected buildings whose upper levels had been completely damaged. It was well after 4:30 p.m. before Randall Street was re-opened for vehicular traffic.
No casualties were reported, but the total cost of the damage caused by the fire could be well into the hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars.
Meanwhile this latest fire outbreak has raised questions in the public about the level of support the National Fire Service receives from the government. A five-year strategic plan produced in 2015 by the Liberia National Fire Service in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), flagged the lack of adequate budgetary support as a major constraint facing the organization.
In 2015, total budgetary allocation to the National Fire Service amounted to an insignificant US$424,568. An amount of US$3,400,000 was proposed for the 2015-2016 fiscal period, however, in the 2017-2018 budget, an amount of US$1,558,456 is allocated for fire protection services.