“Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Johannesburg Emergency Services Management spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said.
Firefighters were still making their way through the remnants of shacks and other informal structures that littered the inside of the derelict five-story building in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district hours after the fire was extinguished
Authorities hadn’t established the cause of the fire but Mgcini Tshwaku, a local government official, said the initial evidence suggested it started with a candle. Inhabitants used candles and fires for light and to keep warm in the winter cold, he said.
A witness who lives in a building across the road said he saw others also throw babies out of the burning building and that he saw at least one man jump from the third floor and hit the concrete pavement “head first”.
Another witness who didn’t give his name told television news channel eNCA that he lived in a building next door and heard people screaming for help and shouting, “We’re dying in here.” As the fire raged, some occupants got trapped behind locked gates at the exits and it was clear there were no proper fire escape routes, the local official Mr Tshwaku said. “People couldn’t get out,” he said, adding that some of the victims may have died after jumping out of the building.
More than 200 people were living in the building, witnesses said, including in the basement, which should have been used as a parking garage. Others estimated an even higher number of occupants.
Johannesburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said 141 families were affected by the tragedy but could not say exactly how many people were in the building when the fire started. Many of the people inside were foreign nationals, he said. That could make identifying victims and tracing the missing hard as many were likely in South Africa illegally, other officials said, and had no South African documents.
Abandoned and broken-down buildings are common and people desperate for some form of accommodation use them for shelter. City authorities refer to the structures as “hijacked buildings” and they have been a problem for years, if not decades.
Officials initially suggested the building had been occupied by squatters, but Lebogang Isaac Maile, the head of the Human Settlements department for Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, said some of those who died may have been renting from, or were being extorted by, criminal gangs.
“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.
“This is a great tragedy felt by families whose loved ones perished in this terrible manner,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in televised remarks. “I do hope that the investigations into the fire will … prevent a repeat of such a tragedy.”
The building was reportedly owned by the city of Johannesburg and is considered a heritage site, but was not being managed by the city. It was once the site of South Africa’s notorious “pass” office, which controlled the movement of Black people under the racist system of apartheid, according to a blue historical plaque hanging at the entrance.