CAPE TOWN â€” A large fire at South Africaâ€™s Houses of Parliament on Sunday sent flames and smoke billowing from rooftops and fire crews racing to save the historic structures.
Officials said the fire spread from an office space on the third floor of a building adjacent to the old National Assembly building toward a gym and to rooftops. The scale of the destruction was not immediately clear, they said, but there were fires burning in â€œtwo very distinct areas,â€ and they warned that it was likely to be extensive.
Parliamentâ€™s spokesman, Moloto Mothapo, said on Sunday evening that a man in his early 50s was arrested inside the parliamentary complex on Sunday morning in connection to the fire, but he did not give any further details.
â€œThe entire parliamentary complex is severely damaged â€” waterlogged and smoke damaged,â€ JP Smith, Cape Townâ€™s mayoral committee member for safety and security, said, adding that â€œthe roof above the old assembly hall is completely gone.â€
â€œThe second point of fire is the National Assembly building, which is gutted,â€ Mr. Smith said, referring to the building where the Parliament meets. â€œThe structural ceiling has collapsed. The fire staff had to be momentarily withdrawn.â€
Cape Townâ€™s Fire and Rescue Service spokesman, Jermaine Carelse, warned that the buildings themselves were at risk of collapse, given the intense heat of the fire.
The roofing material was â€œeven melting,â€ he said, according to the News24 website, adding, â€œThere have been reports of some walls showing cracks.â€
The fire was reported around 6 a.m. and was still burning late Sunday afternoon. No injuries or fatalities have been reported. Parliament was not in session because it had been closed for the holidays.
Investigators surveying the scene were trying to ascertain how the fire started and why it burned as it did.
â€œThey will have to determine how the fire spread from the one blaze to the second blaze,â€ Mr. Smith said, â€œbecause these are two very distinct areas. â€
President Cyril Ramaphosa also arrived to inspect the damage on Sunday afternoon, and he said in a statement that he was â€œdeeply saddenedâ€ by the event.
He added that it was â€œvery clear that this fire has devastated the parliamentary precinct and its contents and assets, including Parliamentâ€™s historical treasures of heritage.â€
As the fire raged early on, smoke poured from the National Assembly buildingâ€™s main entrance. Later, as it was brought more under control, the smoke gave way to show the entranceâ€™s windows blackened.
Parliamentary officials said they were not aware of any sensitive documents that might have been affected by the fire. But offices belonging to lawmakers in the African National Congress as well as in two smaller opposition parties â€” the Good Party and the National Freedom Party â€” were among those badly damaged.
The complex includes a structure completed in the late 1800s that is home to the National Council of Parliament, the countryâ€™s upper house. The National Assembly building is a newer addition.
In March, the older building caught fire, but that blaze was quickly extinguished.
â€œItâ€™s tragic that weâ€™re starting the New Year on this basis, with a fire in the old assembly that seems to be spreading to the new assembly,â€ Steven Swart, the chief whip of the African Christian Democratic Party, said on Sunday.
The fire was still burning hours after it was first reported. At least six fire trucks and about 70 firefighters and police officers were sent to the scene, Mr. Smith said, and the streets around the complex were closed off.
The blaze broke out a day after the funeral of Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who helped lead the fight against apartheid in South Africa. It was held at St. Georgeâ€™s Cathedral, which is a few minutesâ€™ walk from the Houses of Parliament. The archbishopâ€™s ashes were interred in the cathedral on Sunday morning, in a private ceremony for his family around the time the fire was spotted.
Cape Town is no stranger to fires, and wildfires on the slopes of its famed Table Mountain have had a devastating impact in recent years. Last year, a wildfire spread to the University of Cape Town, where it devoured the special collections library â€” home to one of the most expansive collections of first-edition books, films, photographs and other primary sources documenting the history of Southern Africa.