Johannesburg — At least 74 people died when a fire ripped through a five-story building in Johannesburg that had been overtaken by homeless people, officials said Thursday. At least 12 of those killed were children, the youngest a 1-year-old, according to city and medical officials, who held a press conference to give an update on the death toll. They said an undetermined number of people were still missing and many bodies recovered were burned beyond recognition.
More than 50 people were injured, six of whom were in a serious condition in the hospital. Emergency services officials had earlier warned that the death toll could rise as they continued to search the scene more than 12 hours after the blaze broke out at around 1 a.m.
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Johannesburg spokesman Robert Mulaudzi said earlier that, “over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this.”
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 2 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,
“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.
Speaking Thursday at an event in the southern city of Gqeberha, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the fire “a great tragedy, felt by families whose loved ones perished in this terrible manner.”
“Our hearts go out to every person who is affected by this disaster,” he said.