DEVELOPING STORYDEVELOPING STORY,
Emergency services say death toll may rise as blaze guts multistorey building in central business district.
A nighttime fire ripped through a rundown five-story building in Johannesburg that was occupied by homeless people and squatters, killing at least 73 people, emergency services in South Africa’s biggest city said.
Some of the people living in a maze of shacks and other makeshift structures inside the building threw themselves out of windows on Thursday to escape the fire and might have died then, a local government official said. Seven of the victims were children, the youngest a one-year-old, according to an emergency services spokesperson.
As many as 200 people may have been living in the building, witnesses said.
Emergency crews expected to find more victims as they worked their way through the building, a process slowed by the conditions inside. Dozens of bodies were lined up on a nearby side road, some in body bags, and others covered with silver sheets and blankets.
Another 52 people were injured in the blaze, which broke out at about 1am (11:00 GMT Wednesday) in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district, Johannesburg Emergency Services Management spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said.
Abandoned and broken-down buildings in the area are common and often taken over by people desperately seeking some form of accommodation. City authorities refer to them as “hijacked buildings”.
Mulaudzi said the death toll was likely to increase and more bodies were likely trapped inside the building. The fire took three hours to contain, he said, and firefighters had only worked their way through three of the building’s five floors by mid-morning.
“This is a tragedy for Johannesburg. Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Mulaudzi said.
Latest update 63 bodies recoverd and 43 injured still continuing with search and recovery operation
— Cojems Spokesperson (@RobertMulaudzi) August 31, 2023
Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg, said the death toll has risen sharply from the fire, which broke out in the early hours.
“It is an abandoned building, and once that has happened it’s then taken over, in what they say in South Africa, it’s ‘hijacked’ and the rooms are rented out to people,” Miller said.
“The building was densely populated. The emergency services said that there were no regulations within the building. We’ve also heard from the council that the building should have been condemned,” she said.
“There were very few restrictions in terms of safety,” she added.
The cause of the fire is not yet known, according to South Africa’s News24 online news site.
Though the fire was largely extinguished, smoke could be seen seeping from the windows of the blackened building.
Strings of sheets and other materials also hung out of some of the windows. It was not clear if people had used those to try to escape the fire or if they were trying to save their possessions.