Johannesburg: At Least 73 People, Mostly Illegal Immigrants, Killed in Fire in Multi-Storey Building

At least 73 people were killed while 52 others were injured in a massive pre-dawn fire in a five-storey building mostly occupied by homeless illegal immigrants in the central business district in South Africa’s biggest city-Johannesburg on Thursday. The incident was described as a “great tragedy” by South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa

As per authorities, it was unclear what sparked the blaze at the building occupied by homeless people and squatters in the city centre that displaced dozens of families.

A total of 73 bodies were recovered and 52 were injured in the fire, Mulaudzi said. Seven children are among the dead, the youngest a one-year-old baby. The toll is likely to rise, according to officials.

They said the fire – one of the deadliest in South Africa in recent years – has now been extinguished but dozens of emergency and rescue workers are still on the scene as bodies continue to be brought out.

City of Johannesburg emergency services spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said firefighters were alerted to the fire in a building on the corner of Delvers and Alberts streets at about 1:30 a.m. local time.

“We managed to evacuate the people who were inside the building as soon as we arrived while we were conducting firefighting operations, Mulaudzi said, adding that most of those treated for injuries had suffered smoke inhalation or minor injuries. Mulaudzi said arrangements were being made to accommodate those who had been left homeless by the incident.

The fire gutted the five-storey building.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has called the fire accident a “great tragedy”. “Our heart goes out to every person who is affected by this disaster,” he said during a visit to Eastern Cape province.

“This incident calls on all of us… to reach out to survivors to help restore their physical and psychological well-being. “I do hope that the investigations into the fire will enable communities and authorities to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy,” Ramaphosa said.

A video posted by Mulaudzi on X, formerly known as Twitter, showed fire trucks and ambulances outside the building with burnt-out windows. Of the injured, some suffered smoke inhalation with others sustaining minor injuries.

Mulaudzi said the fire had been contained and that they were busy with “damping down” as well as search and recovery operations. He said the death toll may increase because there was an informal settlement inside the building which may have resulted in people being trapped while trying to flee.

“Every floor has an informal settlement, and those that were trying to evacuate were trapped because of the structures between the floors,” the News24 website quoted Mulaudzi as saying. “We have informed people who are at the scene looking for their relatives that chances of finding them alive are very slim.” It is believed all survivors have been evacuated from the building.

The building is one of many in the once bustling district of Johannesburg that has been hijacked by criminal elements who then let them out to desperate migrants, both legal and illegal, who need accommodation. Often, this is despite there being no electricity, water, or sanitation services as the municipality discontinues these in abandoned buildings in an attempt to make them safer.

“There are dozens of shacks inside this building and there must be a few hundred people living in small shacks into which the five floors have been divided, said a resident from Tanzania, who lives next to the building and refused to be identified as he said he was still struggling to get refugee status. He said most of the residents in several buildings in the area were illegal migrants from neighbouring African states who came to the economic heart of South Africa in search of jobs, but most had to struggle to make ends meet as these were very scarce.

He said there were also South Africans from rural areas who did that and who were also exploited by unscrupulous criminal syndicates who have hijacked the buildings. “Most of us are forced to use candles for light and cook on small paraffin stoves and some even use boulas (open fires made in old steel drums), which are very dangerous in closed buildings. I’m not sure how this fire started, but last night was cold and it could have been something like that, he said.

He added that there were some families with small children living in the building. I don’t see much hope for anyone else coming alive out of that building now. We just see firemen bringing out bodies one by one. It’s very sad!, said another woman, who also lives in a shack nearby, again refusing to be identified.

Hundreds of economic migrants live in makeshift homes on empty land and even some streets or converted small sections of buildings in the suburbs surrounding the centre of Johannesburg. Those injured in the blaze were taken to hospital.

Officials from the City of Johannesburg disaster management have been activated to facilitate relief for affected families. “We are aware that in hijacked buildings there is no supply of electricity, water and there will be all sorts of things, but we don’t want to speculate on the causes of that fire, Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni was quoted as saying by TimesLIVE news website.

“Whether it’s an indication that there is a housing problem, no it’s not, because the majority of those people who stay and reside in hijacked buildings are not South African and they are not in this country legally and the government cannot provide housing to illegal immigrants,” she added. Gauteng human settlement MEC Lebogang Maile confirmed that the building is owned by the City of Johannesburg and was leased to an unknown NGO a few years ago.

“There are about 141 households [that have been affected] and more than 300 people who have survived and who will need accommodation. Maile said the government has identified three buildings to house displaced families.

(With PTI Inputs)

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