By Gerald Imray and Mogomotsi Magome,
The Associated Press
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Emergency services teams have left the scene of one of South Africa’s deadliest fires at a derelict Johannesburg apartment block, and pathologists on Sept. 1 faced the grisly task of identifying dozens of charred bodies and some body parts that were transported in large trucks to mortuaries across the city.
That will establish whether the death toll of 74 rises following the Aug. 31 predawn blaze at the downtown building that was inhabited by homeless South Africans, poor foreign migrants and others who found themselves marginalized in a city often referred to as Africa’s richest, but which has deep social problems.
Emergency services personnel with sniffer dogs conducted three searches through all five stories of the building and believe that all bodies and body parts have been removed from the scene, Johannesburg Emergency Services spokesperson Nana Radebe said.
Radebe said the building has been handed over to the police and forensic investigators, who will conduct their own searches and were already working at the scene on Sept. 1.
The remains of some of the victims were taken to a mortuary in the township of Soweto, in the southwestern outskirts of South Africa’s economic hub, where people began to gather as authorities called for family members to help in identifying the dead.
Motalatale Modiba, a Gauteng province health department spokesperson, said 62 of the bodies were so badly burned as to make them unidentifiable and the city’s pathology department faced using painstaking DNA analysis to officially identify the majority of the dead.
Modiba said that in those cases, “even if the family were to come, there is no way of them being able to identify that body.”
Thembalethu Mpahlaza, the CEO of Gauteng’s Forensic Pathology Services, said at a news conference late Aug. 31 that numerous unidentified body parts had also been found in the remnants of the building and his investigators needed to establish if they were part of the remains of the victims already counted or were parts of other bodies.
Radebe said the official death toll had not increased from 74 by early Sept. 1. At least 12 of the dead were children and more than 50 people were injured, including six who were in a serious condition in the hospital.
Many of the dead in the fire were believed to be foreign nationals and possibly in South Africa illegally, making it more difficult to identify them, city officials said. Local media reports, quoting residents of the building, said at least 20 of the dead were from the southern African nation of Malawi. At least five of the dead were Tanzanian nationals, the Tanzanian High Commission in South Africa said.
The fire ravaged a city-owned building that had effectively been abandoned by authorities and had become home to poor people desperately seeking some form of accommodation in the rundown Johannesburg central business district. The building was believed to be home to around 200 families, Johannesburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said.
The phenomenon is common in Johannesburg and the buildings are known as “hijacked buildings.”
Many witnesses said in the immediate aftermath of the fire that they had been separated from family members in the chaos of escaping the inferno. Some said there were children walking around alone outside the building, with no idea if their parents or siblings had survived.
NGOs stepped in to help survivors with temporary accommodation, while religious leaders gathered for prayer services at the building.
Attention in South Africa also turned to who would be held responsible for the tragedy, as emergency services personnel and witnesses painted a picture of a building full of shacks and other temporary structures, and where multiple families were crammed into rooms. Some people were living in the basement parking garage.
Local government officials said that people were trapped inside the building because security gates were locked and there were no proper fire escapes. Many reportedly burned to death and bodies were found on top of each other near one locked gate as people frantically struggled to escape. Others jumped out of windows and died from the fall, witnesses and officials said.
At the building, twisted sheets and blankets still hung like ropes out of windows, showing how some had tried to use them to get out.
The police have opened a criminal case, although it was unclear who might face any charges over the deaths as no official authority was in charge of running the building. South Africa’s Parliament has called for a wider investigation.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who visited the scene on Aug. 31 said the tragedy was partly caused by “criminal elements” who had taken over the building and were charging people to live there.
“The lesson for us is that we’ve got to address this problem,” Ramaphosa said.
Ramaphosa’s call was repeated by many figures from national and local government, who said it was time to resolve Johannesburg’s housing crisis.
But hijacked buildings have been an issue in the city’s center for years, if not decades. Senior city officials conceded they had been aware of problems at the building since at least 2019.
The sudden focus on the issue, only after so many people died, angered some.
“We have seen the president calling this incident tragic,” said Herman Mashaba, a former mayor of Johannesburg and now the leader of an opposition political party. “What do you mean, tragic? You’ve been aware of this. We have seen the decay of this city over 25 years. It’s not something that just happened overnight.”
Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.