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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fire in Johannesburg kills at least 74 people, including a dozen children

Police officers and first responders at the scene of a fire in downtown Johannesburg which killed at least 74 people in the early hours of Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. Dozens of others were injured when a blaze tore through a building where squatters lived in dangerous conditions, city officials said, in one of the deadliest residential fires in South Africa’s history.

By John Eligon and Lynsey Chutel

A blaze on Thursday tore through a building in Johannesburg where squatters lived in dangerous conditions, city officials said, killing at least 74 people and injuring dozens of others in one of the deadliest residential fires in South Africa’s history.

Authorities were still trying to determine what caused the blaze. It consumed a five-story downtown building that had become a dilapidated informal settlement where electric cables dangled in dark corridors and trash spilled from windows — a vivid illustration of a political crisis that has resulted in a severe lack of affordable housing in one of Africa’s most populous cities.

Officials said many residents lit fires for warmth and light, posing a deadly hazard. Mgcini Tshwaku, a Johannesburg city council member who oversees public safety, said when he arrived at the scene of the fire, people were jumping out of windows to escape.

Residents and officials said that illegally occupied buildings like this one often housed South Africans suffering under the country’s housing and unemployment crises and immigrants who have struggled to find stability in a country gripped by economic woes. On Thursday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa called the fire a “wake-up call,” saying South Africa needed to do more to prevent these types of buildings from being “taken over by criminals, who then levy rent on vulnerable people and families who need and want accommodation in the inner city.”

Here is what else to know:

— By midmorning, the fire had been extinguished and firefighters were combing the structure floor by floor, searching for bodies. At least 12 children were among the dead, according to the city’s emergency services.

— The blaze ranks among the deadliest residential fires in recent years. The toll already exceeds that of the 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower in London, which claimed 72 lives.

— Initial evidence suggests the fire started on the ground floor, Tshwaku said, adding that a security gate trapped many residents who were trying to escape. The building was one of more than 600 derelict structures in Johannesburg that are illegally occupied, he said.

— Journalists for The New York Times visited the building in May while reporting for an article about the chaotic state of Johannesburg. They saw garbage sagging out of second-floor windows, a pile of trash partly blocking the entrance and a building so overcrowded that some squatters had erected tin shacks in the back lot.

— Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda of Johannesburg said the city owned the building, which was once an apartheid government checkpoint for Black workers. He said that in recent years the city had leased it to a nonprofit organization that provided emergency housing for women but that the nonprofit had subsequently ended its operations there.

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