At least 73 people died when a nighttime fire ripped through a rundown five-story building in Johannesburg that was used by homeless people, emergency services said Thursday.
Some of the people living in the building in South Africa’s biggest city threw themselves out of windows to escape the blaze and might have died because of that, a local government official said. Seven of the victims were children, the youngest a 1-year-old, according to an emergency services spokesperson.
Another 43 people were injured in the blaze, which broke out at about 1 a.m. in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district, Johannesburg Emergency Services Management spokesman 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.
“Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Mulaudzi said.
The building’s interior was effectively “an informal settlement” where shacks and other structures had been thrown up and people were crammed into rooms, he said. There were “obstructions” everywhere that would have made it very difficult for residents to escape the deadly blaze and which hindered emergency crews trying to work through the site, according to Mulaudzi.
Search teams found 64 bodies, and the chance of anyone being found alive hours after the fire broke out was “very slim,” he said.
As many as 200 people may have been living in the building, witnesses said.
A 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” when the fire started.
Mgcini Tshwaku, a local government official, said there were indications that people lit fires inside the building to keep warm in the winter cold. Officials are looking into the cause of the blaze.
After the fire was extinguished, smoke seeped out of windows of the blackened building as daylight broke. Strings of sheets and other material hung out of some of the broken windows. It was not clear if people had used those items to try and escape the fire or if they were trying to save their possessions.