A massive fire that broke out in a five-storey building in downtown Johannesburg has claimed the lives of at least 63 people, including a child, and injured more than 40 others, according to city officials. The fire, which started around 1:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, was one of the deadliest in the history of South Africa’s largest city.
The building, located in the central business district, was occupied by hundreds of homeless people who had moved in looking for accommodation without formal lease agreements. Witnesses said that some of them had used strings of sheets and other material to hang out of windows, possibly to escape the flames.
Firefighters arrived at the scene and began evacuating the occupants and containing the fire. However, they faced difficulties in searching the building due to its informal and overcrowded nature. Robert Mulaudzi, a spokesman for the emergency services, said that he had never seen anything like this in his 20 years of service.
The fire was largely extinguished by 8 a.m. local time, but smoke still seeped out of the windows of the blackened building. Bodies lay covered on the street as a search and recovery operation was under way. Mulaudzi warned that the death toll could rise further as more people could be trapped inside.
The injured were treated at the scene and transported to hospitals in the area for further care. The City of Johannesburg Disaster Management activated relief for families affected by the fire and urged them to contact their hotline for assistance.
The cause of the fire is yet to be established and an investigation is ongoing. President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and commended the firefighters for their bravery and professionalism. He also called for an urgent review of safety standards and regulations for buildings in the city.