The fire that engulfed a five-storey building in Johannesburg early Thursday morning and claimed the lives of at least 74 people, including 12 children, is described as one of the deadliest fires worldwide in recent years.
Another 61 people were injured and taken to various hospitals for treatment.
RNews previously reported that firefighters and emergency service personnel were called to the scene at the corner of Albert and Delversstraat around 01:30.
According to authorities, the building is believed to be occupied illegally and most of the residents are believed to be foreigners.
“The scene was a mess, there were bodies everywhere on the ground,” says Noma Mahlalela (41), a resident.
The authorities estimate that more than “80 hamlets” burned down inside the building.
According to Thembalethu Mpahlaza, the head of forensic services in Gauteng, several charred bodies were found piled up near a closed security gate.
“A total of 74 charred bodies were found, 24 were female, 40 male and 10 were charred beyond recognition.”
“There are also 12 children killed in this tragedy,” says Mpahlaza.
“Many people tried to escape from the fire, but were stopped by the gate which was closed.”
According to city authorities, the building, which is located in an economically struggling and crime-ridden area, was turned into illegal housing when it became abandoned.
“The fire spread very quickly. It engulfed several floors of the building due to the flammable materials used,” says Robert Mulaudzi, spokesperson for the Johannesburg emergency service.
Blankets and sheets that people used to flee the burning building hung from the broken windows after the flames were extinguished.
The illegal occupation of derelict buildings in Johannesburg’s city center is widespread, with many allegedly under the control of crime syndicates.
The police already investigated activities at the building in 2019, when 140 foreign nationals were arrested for illegally collecting rent, says Floyd Brink, the Johannesburg city manager.
“I am grateful to be alive; so many of us ran away from the fire, looking for the fire exit, but so many people died from smoke inhalation,” says Kenny Bupe, a survivor who happened to be at the building visiting a friend.
The 28-year-old told AFP that he was part of a group that was able to break open a locked fire escape gate and flee to safety, while others “jumped out” from windows.
Witnesses say parents threw their babies into the street in the hope of keeping them out of the flames.
“There were people who caught the babies and there were also mattresses laid out for them,” says Mac Katlego (25), who lives across the street.
By Thursday evening, emergency service personnel were still busy with a search of the building before handing the scene over to the police.
Security gate closed
“It is a great tragedy with many families whose loved ones perished in this terrible way,” Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday.
He visited the scene himself last night and says the department is working “unceasingly” to assist those affected.
“This is a wake-up call for us to tackle the housing issue in our inner cities,” said Ramaphosa.
It is still unclear what exactly caused the fire. Officials say candles used inside the structure or stoves and other heating devices are a likely cause.
“It was very difficult to get out,” says Nobuhle Zwane, who was able to escape with her two children aged two and 13 respectively. “Some corridors were blocked by beds. We inhaled quite a lot of smoke.”
Residents told AFP that each of the five floors has a security gate that is locked at night to keep out police and possible intruders.
Condolences have meanwhile flowed in from around the world, including from Moussa Faki Mahamat, the head of the African Union Commission and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenski.
Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, says he is “deeply saddened” by the incident.
UN teams in South Africa are “ready to work with the authorities to provide assistance to those affected and to prevent further incidents of this nature”, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the agency.