A devastating fire broke out in a dilapidated five-story building in Johannesburg during the night. The building was occupied by homeless individuals and squatters, resulting in a tragic loss of at least 73 lives on early Thursday, according to the emergency services in South Africa’s largest city.
The building’s residents, living in a maze of makeshift structures, desperately attempted to escape the flames. Some resorted to jumping out of windows, resulting in possible fatalities from the fall, as stated by a local government official.
Witnesses reported seeing people throwing babies out of the burning building in a bid to save them. Tragically, one man lost his life when he jumped from a third-floor window and landed on the concrete pavement.
Approximately 200 people might have been residing in the building, including the basement which was meant for parking. However, some estimates suggest an even higher number of occupants.
Out of the victims, seven were children, the youngest being just one year old, according to a spokesperson from the emergency services.
The disaster affected 141 families, but the exact number of individuals present in the building at the time of the fire remains uncertain. Many of the residents were foreigners, city officials noted.
Rescue operations were hindered by the challenging conditions inside the building, but emergency crews anticipated discovering more victims as they progressed. A multitude of bodies were found on a nearby road, some covered in body bags or silver sheets.
The fire erupted around 1 a.m. in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district. The incident, described by the Johannesburg Emergency Services Management spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi, marked a tragic event that he had never encountered during his over 20 years of service.
One survivor recounted escaping the blaze with her grown son and a two-year-old child. She stood outside holding the toddler, uncertain about the fate of two other children from her family.
Johannesburg, although deemed Africa’s wealthiest city, bears a rundown and neglected city center. Abandoned buildings are a common sight, often taken over by those in need of shelter. These structures are referred to as “hijacked buildings” by city authorities.
The particular building in question was owned by the city but was not under the local government’s regulation. It held historical significance as a former “pass” office during the apartheid era, which controlled the movement of Black people.
The tragic fire shed light on the marginalization of the poor in Johannesburg. Authorities were urged to address the issue of derelict buildings, with around 700 such structures identified in central Johannesburg.
The emergency services spokesperson predicted an increasing death toll as more bodies were likely trapped within the building. The fire, taking three hours to contain, left little hope of finding survivors hours after its outbreak.
Initial investigations pointed to candles and fires lit inside the building for warmth and light as potential causes of the fire. Trapped occupants faced locked gates at the exits, emphasizing the lack of proper fire escape routes.
As daylight broke, smoke still emerged from the charred windows of the building. Makeshift ropes fashioned from sheets and blankets hung from the broken windows, serving as somber reminders of the tragic incident.