A devastating nighttime blaze consumed a dilapidated five-story building in Johannesburg, resulting in the death of at least 73 individuals, including seven children, on Thursday, according to the city’s emergency services. The structure, situated in South Africa’s largest city, was home to many homeless individuals and squatters.
The building’s interiors comprised a web of shacks and other temporary dwellings. In the panic, a local government representative reported that some residents jumped from windows, possibly leading to fatalities. Among the deceased, the youngest was only a year old, stated an emergency services spokesperson.
Witnesses estimated that around 200 residents inhabited the building. As emergency responders continued their search operations, they anticipated discovering more victims, especially given the cluttered state of the interiors. A chilling sight nearby showcased dozens of victims lined along a road, some in body bags, while others were covered with blankets and metallic sheets.
Robert Mulaudzi, Johannesburg Emergency Services Management spokesperson, reported that an additional 52 individuals suffered injuries from the fire, which ignited around 1 a.m. in Johannesburg’s central business district. These abandoned structures in the vicinity, often occupied by those in dire need of shelter, are termed “hijacked buildings” by city authorities.
Mulaudzi expressed his grim outlook, stating that more victims likely remained inside and pointed out that by mid-morning, only three out of the five floors had been combed through by firefighters. Describing the incident as an unprecedented tragedy for Johannesburg in his two-decade career, Mulaudzi emphasized the challenges posed by the building’s chaotic interior, which likely complicated evacuation efforts and rescue operations.
The fire’s aftermath revealed 73 bodies, and Mulaudzi remarked that the odds of discovering survivors were bleak. City officials noted the tragedy impacted 141 families. Preliminary assessments suggest that most of the building’s occupants were foreign nationals.
An eyewitness, who chose to remain anonymous, described the horrifying scene to the eNCA news channel, recounting the desperate cries of trapped residents. Mgcini Tshwaku, a local government representative, mentioned that there were signs of fires being lit within the building to combat the winter chill, hinting at a possible cause of the inferno.
Post-extinguishing, the scorched building still emitted smoke as daylight approached. Sheets and other fabrics dangled from broken windows, leaving one to wonder if they were employed in escape attempts or to salvage belongings.