A nighttime fire has ripped through a run-down five-storey building in Johannesburg that was occupied by squatters and homeless people, killing at least 74 people, including 12 children.
Some of the people living in a maze of shacks and other makeshift structures inside the building threw themselves out of windows on Thursday to escape the fire and might have died then, a local government official said. Seven of the victims were children, the youngest a one-year-old, according to an emergency services spokesperson.
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As many as 200 people may have been living in the building, witnesses said.
“Among the 74 bodies … we are having 12 children involved also in this tragedy,” Thembalethu Mpahlaza, the head of forensics services in Gauteng province, told a press conference.
Emergency crews expected to find more victims as they worked their way through the building, a process slowed by the conditions inside. Dozens of bodies were lined up on a nearby side road, some in body bags, and others covered with silver sheets and blankets.
Another 52 people were injured in the blaze, which broke out at about 1am on Thursday (23:00 GMT on Wednesday) in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district, Johannesburg Emergency Management Services (EMS) spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said.
On Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the site in the evening, calling the fire a “great tragedy felt by families whose loved ones perished in this terrible manner”.
“I do hope that the investigations into the fire will … prevent a repeat of such a tragedy,” he said in televised remarks.
“It’s a wake-up call for us to begin to address the situation of housing in the inner city,” he said.
‘Hijacked’ apartheid-era building
Abandoned and broken-down buildings in the area are common and often taken over by people desperately seeking some form of accommodation. City authorities refer to them as “hijacked buildings”.
A sign on the entrance to the gutted block shows it was a heritage building of South Africa’s apartheid past, where Black South Africans came to collect their dompas – documents that would enable them to work in white-owned areas of the city.
Mulaudzi said the death toll was likely to increase and more bodies were likely trapped inside the building. The fire took three hours to contain, he said, and firefighters had only worked their way through three of the building’s five floors by mid-morning.
“This is a tragedy for Johannesburg. Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Mulaudzi said.
Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg, said the death toll has risen sharply from the fire, which broke out in the early hours.
“It is an abandoned building, and once that has happened it’s then taken over, in what they say in South Africa, it’s ‘hijacked’ and the rooms are rented out to people,” Miller said.
“The building was densely populated. The emergency services said that there were no regulations within the building. We’ve also heard from the council that the building should have been condemned,” she said. “There were very few restrictions in terms of safety.”
The cause of the fire is not yet known, according to EMS and city administration officials.
Though the fire was largely extinguished, smoke could be seen seeping from the windows of the blackened building.
Strings of sheets and other materials also hung out of some of the windows. It was not clear if people had used those to try to escape the fire or if they were trying to save their possessions.
Relatives await news about missing loved ones
Nkateko Mabasa, reporting for Al Jazeera from the scene of the fire, spoke to Elis Daras, a Malawian expat living in South Africa.
Daras received a phone call from friends at around 8am (06:00 GMT) on Thursday, informing her of a fire at a building where her husband, Solomon Daras, lived.
The 37-year-old immediately rushed to the scene from Mayfair, a suburb west of the city, but has not heard any news about her husband since arriving outside the gutted building.
It has left her wondering whether her husband was among the dead or injured.
“I haven’t heard anything about Solomon,” she said. “We don’t know whether he is dead or at the hospital.”
While emergency services officials conducted their search of the building, Daras and a group of women waited on the pavement two streets away from the scene.
Fire demonstrates ‘chronic housing problem’
Lebogang Isaac Maile, the head of the Human Settlements department for Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, said some of the victims may have been renting from criminal gangs illegally collecting fees.
“There are cartels who prey on who are vulnerable people. Because some of these buildings, if not most of them, are actually in the hands of those cartels who collect rental from the people,” he told reporters at the scene.
Maile said the fire “demonstrates a chronic problem of housing in our province, as we’ve previously said that there’s at least 1.2 million people who need housing”.
The city suffers from chronic power shortages during which many resort to candles for light and wood fires for heat.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party says it is “saddened by the tragic loss of life” in Johannesburg”.
“We urge law enforcement authorities to ensure that those responsible for this tragedy are held accountable,” the ANC said in a post on X.