JOHANNESBURG – Zimbabweans are among dozens of people affected by a massive fire that engulfed a five-story building in central Johannesburg on Thursday morning and claimed the lives of 73 people, including children, and injured more than 50 others.
The building, which had been taken over by gangs and turned into informal housing, was home to hundreds of migrants and South Africans who lived in cramped and unsafe conditions.
The fire broke out around 1:30AM when most of the residents were asleep.
Witnesses said they heard screams and saw flames and smoke spreading rapidly through the building. Many people tried to escape, but some were trapped by the makeshift structures that divided the floors and blocked the fire escape.
Alice Garo, a Zimbabwean national who lived in the building with her four children, was one of the lucky ones who managed to get out. She said she grabbed her youngest son and ran as soon as she heard the alarm.
“My eldest son came into my room saying it’s bad in our building. I don’t know where the other two are,” she said, sobbing.
Garo confirmed that the building had been hijacked and that they were paying rent to illegal landlords.
“This place is unsafe and it harbours criminals,” she said.
Another survivor, Omar Foart from Malawi, said that he had lost his sister and all of his possessions in the fire.
“I tried to save her, but it was too late. The smoke was too much. I couldn’t breathe,” he said.
Foart said that the building had no electricity or water and that they used candles and paraffin lamps for lighting.
“That’s how the fire started. Someone knocked over a lamp and it caught fire,” he said.
The cause of the blaze is still under investigation, but authorities have ruled out arson. They said the fire was fueled by the flammable materials and rubbish that filled the building.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa called the incident a “tragedy” and expressed his condolences to the families of the victims.
Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said the government had no responsibility to provide housing for illegal immigrants.
“The majority of the people who stay or reside in hijacked buildings are not South African, and they are not in this country legally. The government cannot provide housing to illegal immigrants,” Ntshavheni told journalists at media briefing on Thursday.
Meanwhile, rescue officials said they have moved through the building floor by floor, searching for survivors and pulling out charred bodies. They said they feared that the death toll could rise as they reached the upper floors, where most of the residents lived.
Treasurelle Shuping, 53, was among those who waited anxiously outside the building, hoping to find her daughter Matshidiso, 26, who had been living there for a year.
“I used to come here to visit her and she would run away from me. She was on drugs,” Shuping said, wiping away tears.
“I hope she is alive. I’m praying she is well. She is my only child.”
Robert Mulaudzi, a spokesperson for the city’s emergency services, said they had retrieved 64 bodies from the scene so far and transferred 43 injured people to various hospitals.
He said most of the injured suffered from smoke inhalation or minor to moderate burn wounds.
“We have people who want to move in [to the building]. We restrain them from going in. We are still looking for more people,” he said.
He added that people were trapped inside the structure because of the lack of proper exits.
“Every floor has an informal settlement, and those who were trying to evacuate were trapped because of the structures between the floors,” he said.
“We have informed people who are at the scene looking for their relatives that chances of finding them alive are very slim.”
Elsewhere, the Zimbabwe Consulate in Johannesburg, South Africa, said it is working with the local police to verify if any Zimbabweans are among the more than 70 people who died in a fire.
Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Pretoria, David Hamadziripi, said: “The Consulate in Johannesburg is in contact with the police.”