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Trapped residents fled through windows in S.African inferno

By Zama LUTHULI
South Africa Residents used blankets and sheets to try to flee the flames.  By Michele Spatari (AFP)
THU, 31 AUG 2023 LISTEN
Residents used blankets and sheets to try to flee the flames. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

Blankets and sheets still hang from the blackened windows, used by the desperate to reach safety as flames turned the five-storey building in downtown Johannesburg into a death trap.

Others just jumped.

Witnesses spoke of parents throwing their babies out into the street, trying to save them, after scrabbling around in vain to find an exit.

"It was so difficult for us to get out," said Nobuhle Zwane, who said she managed to escape through the smoke with her two children aged 13 and two.

Many others did not make it out.

More than 70 people died and scores were injured after the fire broke out in the early hours, swiftly engulfing a building taken over for illegal housing.

Authorities estimate more than 80 "shacks" had been set up in the building.

Inside, emergency workers found further signs of the horror that confronted residents.

Bodies were discovered piled up at a security gate that had been closed, preventing people from getting out, an official said.

Residents told AFP that each of the five floors had a security gate that was kept locked at night to keep the police and intruders out.

The edifice is located in a deprived, crime-ridden area of what used to be the business district of South Africa's economic hub.

The fire broke out in the early hours, swiftly engulfing a building taken over for illegal housing.  By Michele Spatari (AFP) The fire broke out in the early hours, swiftly engulfing a building taken over for illegal housing. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

But city authorities said it had been turned into illegal housing after being abandoned.

As daylight came, the area was teeming with security forces, ambulances, fire trucks, onlookers and shocked survivors -- some waiting for updates on their loved ones.

Rescuers laid bodies under blankets on the street outside -- partially shielded from prying eyes by a large emergency services truck.

"Some... got out through windows, women and children were left behind and they died while inside," said resident Irene Ntamba.

"We lost all our things that got burnt, our papers and our money."

'Grateful to be alive'

Paramedics assisted survivors, some looking bruised and visibly in pain, as two women on a nearby street consoled each other as they cried.

"The scene this morning was a mess, there were bodies on the ground everywhere," said resident Noma Mahlalela, 41, adding most people living in the building were foreigners.

People looked on in shock, as others waited for updates about loved ones.  By Michele Spatari (AFP) People looked on in shock, as others waited for updates about loved ones. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

In nearby bars and shops, people silently followed the news on TV.

The cause of the blaze is being investigated.

Authorities said candles used for lighting or stoves and other heating devices were a likely cause.

The building was covered in ash as firefighters damped it down and used a mechanised ladder to access the top floors.

Zwane, the mother of two, said some corridors were blocked by beds.

"There was a lot of us running, trying to find the fire exit," survivor Kenny Bupe said, adding he was part of a group that managed to break open a locked fire escape gate and run to safety.

"I'm grateful to be alive."

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024

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