A devastating fire erupted in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district, consuming a dilapidated five-story building predominantly occupied by homeless individuals and squatters. The incident, which occurred in the early hours of Thursday, resulted in the tragic loss of at least 73 lives, according to emergency services in South Africa’s largest city.
Desperate Escapes and Heartbreaking Loss
Some of the people living in a maze of shacks and other makeshift structures inside the building threw themselves out of windows to escape the fire and might have died then, shared a local government official. The catastrophe claimed the lives of seven children, with the youngest victim being only a year old, as confirmed by an emergency services spokesperson. Witnesses estimate that the building might have housed up to 200 inhabitants.
Emergency personnel, hindered by the chaotic conditions inside, anticipate discovering more victims. The grim scene outside the building was marked by dozens of bodies, some in body bags, others draped with silver sheets and blankets.
The Scale of the Tragedy
Robert Mulaudzi, a spokesperson for Johannesburg Emergency Services Management, reported that 52 individuals sustained injuries from the fire, which ignited around 1 a.m. He further stated that the building’s interior resembled
an informal settlement with makeshift shacks and obstructions that would have made escape challenging for the residents and complicated the efforts of the emergency crews.
This is a tragedy for Johannesburg. Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,expressed a somber Mulaudzi.
By mid-morning, firefighters had only managed to navigate through three of the building’s five floors. The likelihood of finding survivors dwindled with each passing hour.
The Building’s Troubled History
The structure, previously an apartheid government checkpoint for Black workers, had transformed into an expansive squatter camp amidst Johannesburg’s ongoing housing crisis. Residents from a neighboring apartment complex painted a grim picture of the building, recounting nightly screams and sounds resembling gunfire or fireworks. Stories of stolen cars, elusive pickpockets, and drug dealers lurking nearby were common. The building’s reputation was further marred by an incident last year where a woman was reportedly thrown from its fourth floor.
While the exact cause of the fire remains under investigation, Mgcini Tshwaku, a local government official, hinted at the possibility of residents lighting fires within the building to combat the winter chill.
As the city grapples with the aftermath of this tragedy, questions arise about the state of housing in Johannesburg and the safety of its most vulnerable residents. The incident underscores the urgent need for comprehensive solutions to the city’s housing crisis and the importance of ensuring safe living conditions for all its inhabitants.