A nighttime fire ripped through a rundown apartment building mainly occupied by homeless people and squatters in Johannesburg, forcing some to throw babies out of third-story windows in a desperate attempt to save them and leaving at least 73 people dead early Thursday, witnesses and emergency services in South Africa’s biggest city said.
At least seven of the victims were children, the youngest a 1-year-old, according to an emergency services spokesperson. A South African television station reported that the number had climbed to 12 children dead, although emergency services didn’t immediately confirm that.
More than 50 people were injured and emergency services officials warned that the death toll could still rise as they continued to search the scene more than 12 hours after the blaze broke out at around 1 a.m.
Dozens of bodies recovered by firefighters lay on a side road outside the apartment block, some in body bags but others covered in silver sheets or blankets after the body bags ran out.
“Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Johannesburg Emergency Services Management spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said.
Authorities hadn’t established the cause of the fire but Mgcini Tshwaku, a local government official, said the initial evidence suggested it started with a candle. Inhabitants used candles and fires for light and to keep warm in the winter cold, he said.
Firefighters were still making their way through the remnants of shacks and other informal structures that littered the inside of the derelict five-story building in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district. Smoke seeped out of the blackened building even though the fire was out, while twisted blankets and sheets hung like ropes out of shattered windows to show how people had used them to try and escape the flames.
Some of the survivors described how they jumped out of windows to escape the blaze, but only after tossing their children to others below.
“Everything happened so fast and I only had time to throw the baby out,” said Adam Taiwo, who managed to save his 1-year-old son and himself. “I also followed him after they caught him downstairs.” Taiwo said he did not know where his wife, Joyce, was.
A witness who lives in a building across the road said he saw others also throw babies out of the burning building and that at least one man died when he jumped from a window on the third floor and hit the concrete sidewalk “head first.”
Another witness who didn’t give his name told television news channel eNCA that he lived in a building next door and heard people screaming for help and shouting “We’re dying in here” when the fire started.
As the fire raged, some occupants got trapped behind locked gates at the exits and it was clear there were no proper fire escape routes, local official Tshwaku said.