Johannesburg — At least 73 people died when a fire ripped through a five-story building in Johannesburg that had been overtaken by homeless people, officials said Thursday. A social media post on the city administration’s official account confirmed the latest death toll, adding that at least 52 others were injured.
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Johannesburg spokesman Robert Mulaudzi said earlier that the blaze that broke out in the predawn hours and many of the victims were suffering from smoke inhalation. He said the death toll was likely to rise after the blaze at what he described as “an informal settlement.”
“Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Mulaudzi said.
A search and recovery operation was underway and firefighters were moving floor-to-floor through the building, Mulaudzi said. Emergency services workers were bringing charred bodies out of the building and putting blankets and sheets over them on the street outside.
At least seven children were among the dead, the AFP news agency reported, the youngest under two years old.
Authorities said the fire had been largely extinguished, but smoke still seeped out of windows of the blackened building downtown. Strings of sheets and other materials also hung out of some windows. It wasn’t clear if people had used those to try and escape the fire or if they were trying to save their possessions.
The origin of the blaze wasn’t immediately clear, though Mgcini Tshwaku, a member of the city’s mayoral committee in charge of public safety, told AFP candles used for lighting inside the structure were a likely cause.
“Inside the building itself there was a (security) gate which was closed so people couldn’t get out,” he said. “Many burned bodies were found stashed at that gate.”
Mulaudzi said homeless people had moved into the building without formal lease agreements. He said that made it hard to search the structure.
There might have been as many as 200 people living in the building, witnesses said.
AFP said it’s common for people to live illegally in unused buildings in the city center — with many said to be run by criminal syndicates who charge occupants rent.
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