A suspected gas leak has killed as many as 16 people including three children, in Boksburg, South Africa, a suburb just outside of Johannesburg.
William Ntladi, an emergency services spokesperson for the nearby municipality of Ekurhuleni, said the gas leak emanated from a cylinder in the Angelo camp, an informal settlement with limited public services.
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Emergency services were called around 8pm local time (18:00 GMT) to attend to what was thought to be a gas explosion. However, first responders came to realise the deaths were caused not by an explosion but by “poisonous gas” leaking into the area.
While Ntladi initially estimated 24 people had died from nitrate gas inhalation, South Africa’s Gauteng Province Premier Panyaza Lesufi later told the media that the death toll had been verified at 16 after a recount.
“It’s not a nice scene. It’s painful, emotionally draining and tragic,” Lesufi said, describing bodies strewn on the ground, including one as young as a year old.
Ntladi also offered a possible reason for the leak in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), a public broadcaster: “We suspect this could be linked to illegal mining in the area.”
No hospitalisations have been reported so far. But Ntladi indicated that search-and-rescue operations were ongoing, as investigators work through the night to identify victims.
Ntladi also told Newzroom Afrika that the gas cylinder was “basically empty” by the time emergency services arrived on the scene: “So we don’t know from when was this activity taking place.”
He speculated that the nitrate had been used to extrapolate gold from the soil.
Illegal gold mining has been an ongoing threat in South Africa, with poverty, unemployment and crime driving the underground industry.
Informal miners have been dubbed “zama zamas” — the Zulu term for people who try their luck — as they risk their lives in disused mines and rudimentary tunnels, scraped into the earth without safety measures.
A gas explosion in May killed approximately 31 miners working illegally in the city of Welkom, trapping their bodies underground. But recovery efforts were stymied by high levels of methane in the mine — and the threat of further explosions.
Estimates place the number of abandoned gold mines in the country at around 6,000, and environmentalists have warned that industrial mining has left a legacy of poverty and health problems in nearby areas.
The informal mining that has cropped up in its place has also been blamed for a rise in gang violence and turf wars, as would-be miners jockey for the best dig sites.