At least 74 people have died and dozens more were injured after a fire tore through a five-story building in central Johannesburg which had been turned into informal housing.
Authorities said they have moved through the building floor by floor, searching for survivors and pulling out charred bodies and laying them on the streets. At least 12 children were among those killed, city officials said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon.
The fire has now been extinguished, rescue officials said.
In addition to the dead, more than 50 other people were injured, according to Robert Mulaudzi, a spokesperson for the city’s emergency services.
Wiseman Mpepa, who survived the fire, told CNN he woke up to people screaming. After seeing the fire blocking the building’s exit, he broke his window, but struggled to climb through.
Mpepa said he tried to tell other people in the building to go a gate to exit the building, but the gate was shut. “They closed the gate,” he told CNN on the ground. “After that, I had no plan. I just sat (in my room).”
Videos taken moments after the fire broke out show huge orange flames engulfing the lower floor of a building and scores of people standing outside.
Photos from Thursday morning showed onlookers crowding around burnt out and cordoned off areas, broken glass windows, and clothes strewn around the building.
The cause of the blaze remains unclear but authorities at the scene gave no indication it was deliberate. The fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. local time, when many people inside the building were asleep. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa called it a “tragedy.”
Fire worst in recent memory
It took place in a “hijacked” building in central Johannesburg, Mulaudzi said, referring to what he said were hundreds of settlements inside.
“Hijacked” buildings, seen in many parts of downtown Johannesburg, refer to buildings abandoned by landlords and taken over by gangs or other groups and leased out mostly to migrants and South Africans who don’t have the means to afford other forms of housing.
The blaze took place in a “hijacked” building.
Mpepa was staying in the building with his family members, including his brother, sister, and brother-in-law. Mpepa said he does not know where they are. “I don’t have any plan, because everything, I lost,” he said.
Mpepa told CNN that he passed out from the smoke and could not remember how he evacuated the fire safely. “The smoke was coming to me, after that I just fell down. Then from there, I don’t know anything.”
Another eyewitness, Kenny Bupe, claimed that the fire escape was closed and a lot of people died because of the smoke.
“There was a lot of people you know, a lot of people, smoke… people suffocated, a lot of people died because of the smoke, because there was a lot of pressure at the gate, some of the gates were closed,” he told Reuters.
Another survivor, Omar Foart from Malawi, said that he had lost his sister and all of his possessions in the fire.
“Firstly I lost my sister. Three sisters I’ve already lost,” he told Reuters, adding that he left all his things inside the burning building whilst trying to save his life.
“My sister left her small daughter, and my in-law hit the window and threw the daughter outside and the people (on the ground) caught the daughter while she was hot on the air,” he added.
This form of housing often fails to meet basic safety regulations. Local authorities on the scene described the building as like an informal settlement, saying the apartments in the building, intended only to house two or three people, were partitioned into sleeping areas to accommodate multiple people.
One eyewitness claimed that a fire escape exit was closed during the blaze.
“Hijacked buildings” have been condemned in South Africa and attempts have been made to bring in regulations. Authorities have been criticized by some South Africans for failing to tackle the problem.
South Africa has seen other devastating fires in informal settlements across the country the country in recent months, though Thursday’s was the worst in recent memory.
Johannesburg City Manager Floyd Brink said approximately 200 groups of people were affected by the fire in the five-storey building.
The building, which belongs to the City of Johannesburg, was once used as a court during the apartheid era. Brink said the building had been leased as a shelter for abused women, but had been “hijacked” after the conclusion of that lease, with illegal water and electricity connections set up.
Brink said in a previous raid on the building, 140 foreign nationals were arrested and charged after being found in the building.
He called the tragedy an “unprecedented incident given the number of lives lost.”
Former Johannesburg mayor and leader of ActionSA political party, Herman Mashaba, called the fire deaths “devastating” and “totally unnecessary.”
Mashaba told CNN on Thursday that hijacked buildings exist “with the full knowledge of our national government,” adding that “in fact some of them are involved in this illegal activities.
“They make life difficult for the owner of the building, reaching a stage where people just really abandon the property,” he said.
“They take it over, then obviously because they are bullies, they obviously start charging rent out themselves and they connect illegally to the city’s services… without paying anything,” he added.