At least 73 people have died in a fire that ripped through a multi-story building used as an “informal settlement” in Johannesburg in what South Africa’s president has called “a great tragedy”.
Another 52 people were injured in the blaze that broke out in the centre of South Africa’s biggest city in the early hours of Thursday, with emergency services saying the death toll could rise.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday called the more than 70 deaths in an apartment block fire in Johannesburg “a great tragedy” and said he hoped an investigation would help prevent a repeat of the incident.
Emergency services spokesperson spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said: “Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this.”
Seven of the victims were children, the youngest a one-year-old.
Some of the people living in the building threw themselves out of windows to escape the blaze and might have died because of that, a local government official said.
The building was owned by municipal authorities who, 12 hours after the blaze broke out, were still unable to provide a clear picture of who had lived there.
One official said some rooms may have been rented out by criminal gangs.
A large crowd has gathered at the cordon of the building while firefighters dampen down hotspots.
A tearful mother, Treasurelee Shuping, told local reporters she is looking for her daughter.
“She stayed in the building for over a year now, as soon as I heard it was burning down I knew I had to run here to come and look for her,” she told Times LIVE.
“I’m actually very anxious. I don’t know if my daughter is alive.”
Leo, a 25-year-old who survived the blaze, had been living on the building’s second floor. He escaped along with his mother via the stairs.
“People were just running away. It was dark and there was smoke. You couldn’t see anything,” he said.
Strings of sheets and other materials also hung out of some of the windows. It was not clear if people had used those to try and escape the fire or if they were trying to save their possessions.
Mr Mulaudzi said the building was effectively an “informal settlement” where homeless people had moved in looking for accommodation without any formal lease agreements.
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 Mr Mulaudzi.
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.”
There might have been as many as 200 people living in the building, witnesses said.
Mgcini Tshwaku, a local government official, said there were indications that people lit fires inside the building to keep warm in the winter cold.
City Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda told reporters the municipality had leased it to a charity for displaced women but that it had “ended up serving a different purpose,” without giving further details.
Lebogang Isaac Maile, the head of the Human Settlements department for Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, said some of those burned to death may have been renting from criminal gangs illegally collecting rent.
“There are cartels who prey on who are vulnerable people. Because some of these buildings, if not most of them, are actually in the hands of those cartels who collect rental from the people,” he told reporters.
Johannesburg remains one of the world’s most unequal cities with widespread poverty, joblessness and a housing crisis. It has about 15,000 homeless people, according to the Gauteng government.
Household fires are common in Johannesburg, especially in poor areas. One of the poorest townships, Alexandra, has seen hundreds of homes razed in several fires over the past five years.
The city suffers from chronic power shortages during which many resort to candles for light and wood fires for heat.