At least 73 people, including seven children, have died in a fire in a multi-storey building in the centre of Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, emergency services have said.
In one of the country’s worst such tragedies in living memory, emergency management services said a further 43 people had been injured in the blaze, which broke out early on Thursday.
People had been evacuated from the building, and an emergency services spokesperson said a search and recovery operation was under way. It was likely the death toll would rise, Robert Mulaudzi said, and it was not immediately clear what caused the blaze. As of midday on Thursday, authorities had yet to count the casualties on the top two floors of the five-storey building.
“Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Mulaudzi said.
There was an “informal settlement” inside the building, Mulaudzi said. “So there [are] a lot of informal structures inside the building. There is a lot of debris that we have to remove.”
Omar Arafat, a resident of the building, said he was woken up at about 1am by loud bangs and screams of “fire, fire”. He rushed for the building’s front door, but his path was blocked by flames. With no other avenue of escape, he broke a window in his third-storey room and jumped.
He said he did not remember anything else. “I was out for three hours,” the Malawian national said. When he regained consciousness, he was surrounded by fire engines and ambulances. There were dozens of bodies on the road around him. “When I got up, I thought: where is my sister?”
Joyce Adam, Arafat’s sister who also lived in the building, has yet to be accounted for. Her two-year-old daughter was thrown out of a window and caught by people on the ground. The child is being cared for by other family members.
At the scene on Thursday, hundreds of people gathered behind police lines hoping for word on friends and family members who lived in the building. “We have not been told anything,” said Mpathu Motani, who was waiting for news of her sister. “We are feeling very bad.”
The residents of the building were mostly from Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Those who did escape face an uncertain future: so far, there has been no provision made for alternative accommodation, and most people lost their passports, phones and money in the fire.
“I lost everything. Money, passport. I don’t know where I’m going to sleep,” said Musa, a 24-year-old shopkeeper from Tanzania. He jumped to safety from the second floor, but his brother broke his back and died.
In addition to the dozens of emergency service and police vehicles, local government officials and politicians gathered outside the building. “This is a tragedy of immeasurable proportions,” said Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the Build One South Africa party. He said living conditions in the building should never have been allowed to get so bad. “It’s symptomatic of law enforcement in the city that has all but collapsed.”
The building is in the heart of Johannesburg’s dilapidated central business district, and is one of hundreds of “hijacked” buildings that have been unlawfully occupied and receive little in the way of public services.
Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, the author of The Blinded City: Ten Years in Inner-City Johannesburg, said: “The scale of this is something we’ve never seen before, but there are constantly recurring events arising out of people living in extraordinary poverty in inner-city buildings.”
“We’ve had over the last decade tens of thousands of people living in these types of conditions, often living very informally within very derelict inner-city buldings, often with illegal electricity connections and no water supply,” said Solomon, a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “The conditions in these spaces are often conducive to fire because of the lack of adequate water supply, and the use of open fire such as paraffin lamps.”
Several other buildings in a similar state of neglect have caught fire in recent months. Earlier in August, a fire tore through the top floor of a building in the suburb of Yeoville, near the central business district, and in June two children were killed in a blaze in Hillbrow. In July, a fire broke out on Lilian Ngoyi Street after an underground gas explosion.
Source: The Guardian