Thursday, 21 September 2023
WorldFire in Johannesburg leaves at least 73 dead, most of them homeless

Fire in Johannesburg leaves at least 73 dead, most of them homeless

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — At least 73 people were killed in a fire that tore through a dilapidated five-story building in Johannesburg that was home to homeless people and squatters, emergency services in South Africa’s largest city said Thursday. .

Some of those living in the labyrinth of shanties and makeshift structures inside the building threw themselves out of the windows to try to escape the flames and may have died as a result, a local government official said.

Seven of the victims were minors, the youngest just one year old, explained the emergency services spokesperson.

According to witnesses, there could be up to 200 residents in the building.

Emergency crews expected to find more victims as they move through the building, a process slowed by the conditions inside. Dozens of bodies lay side by side on a nearby street, some in body bags and others covered with thermal sheets and blankets.

Another 52 people were injured in the fire that started around 1 a.m. in the heart of the city’s financial district, said Robert Mulaudzi, a spokesman for the Emergency Service.

The area is rife with abandoned and dilapidated buildings that are often occupied by people desperate to find accommodation. City authorities refer to them as “hijacked buildings.”

According to Mulaudzi, the number of deaths could increase because there are people who are still trapped in the building. It took firefighters three hours to contain the flames and, by mid-morning, they had only been able to access three of its five floors, he added.

“This is a tragedy for Johannesburg. In more than 20 years of service, I have never encountered anything like this,” Mulaudzi said.

The interior of the building was actually an “informal settlement” where shanties and other structures had been erected and people were crowded into rooms, the spokesperson said. There were “obstructions” everywhere that could have greatly complicated the residents’ escape and hindered emergency crews’ access to the scene, he added.

Rescue teams have found 73 bodies. The chances of anyone being alive inside are “very slim,” Mulaudzi explained.

According to city authorities, 141 families have been affected by the tragedy, although they could not immediately clarify how many people were inside the building at the time of the fire. Most of them are believed to be foreigners, they added.

A witness who did not give his name told eNCA television that he lived in an adjoining building and heard people calling for help and yelling “We’re dying in here” when the fire started.

Mgcini Tshwaku, a municipal government official, said there were indications that people were lighting fires inside the building to keep warm during the winter. Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire.

After the flames had been extinguished, smoke seeped out of the windows of the blackened building at dawn. Strings of sheets and other materials hung from some of them. It was not clear if they were used to try to escape the fire or to save their possessions.

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