Illegal fires choking us, say Goodwood residents

Vasco station in Voortrekker Road, Goodwood.

Vagrants are burning cable for copper on railway land in Goodwood, and residents of a nearby block of flats say they’re choking on the toxic fumes they suspect have caused the deaths of two of them in the past month.

Two neighbours in Almeral Court, Johannes van Heerden, 61, and his sister, Hendrica Brognri, 68, died within days of each other at Karl Bremer Hospital. Mr Van Heerden died on Friday August 21, and Ms Brognri died on Sunday September 6. Karl Bremer Hospital did not respond to questions in time for this story. Northern News was unable to ascertain the exact cause of Mr Van Heerden’s death, but the death certificate for Ms Brognri states that she died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Ms Brognri’s daughter, Theresa Jordan, who lives in a flat between her mother and uncle, said her mother and uncle had used nebulisers for asthma, but their conditions had worsened since the start of lockdown when more vagrants had started lighting fires on the field next to Vasco train station, about 100m from the flats in Voortrekker Road.

“We closed everything but the smoke still came in [to the flat],” Ms Jordan said. “Vagrants at the station burn everything and anything to cook their food, every day and cable for copper. It smells of burning plastic, almost like death.”

Deon Olivier also lives in Almeral Court. He said his wife Ingrid’s chronic asthma had worsened since the start of lockdown. One night at the end of May they had had to close their windows while watching television because of the “toxic fumes”. He had then turned around to find Ingrid had collapsed on the floor. She had been examined at hospital and had been discharged the same evening, but two hours after returning home, she had still been wheezing, he said. 

On Wednesday September 16, his wife had had to use her nebuliser for an hour after vagrants had burnt a carpet and plastic on the field, he said.

“The smell was very bad,” he said. He took pictures of the fire and reported it to the police.

He said when he had phoned the City about the problems on the field, he had been told that a temporary air-quality sensor would be installed at the station to measure air pollution. However, mayoral committee member for community services and health, Zahid Badroodien, told Northern News that no such sensor had been set up there. The nearest one, he added, was in Oxford Street, Goodwood, about 1.5k km away. An inspection of the Vasco precinct had found no evidence of large scale burning of waste, but vagrants had erected shelters and had been seen cooking food over fires, he said. 

City law enforcement spokesman Wayne Dyason said there was frequent burning of copper at Vasco station and fines had been issued. Goodwood police commander Colonel Sibusiso Mntambo said they had arrested several people for copper-cable theft in and around Vasco station. Perpetrators were getting through a broken fence on the property, which is owned by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), he said.

Councillor Francesca Walker said she had met several times with the Prasa about cleaning and security at Vasco station. Prasa’s Riana Scott said vagrancy had increased sharply during lockdown while Prasa’s finances had worsened. Prasa decided where to build or repair walls and fences based on risk assessments, she said, adding that the immediate priority was to restore train services.

Prasa’s electrical infrastructure is being replaced by fibre, but Ms Scott said thieves still stole the cable and by the time they discovered it was worthless the damage was already done.