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South African Police Probe Jo'burg Tragedy as Survivors Reel from Devastation


A police officer investigates the scene of a deadly blaze, in Johannesburg, South Africa, September 1, 2023.

UPDATED - JOHANNESBURG — South African police Friday stepped up their investigations into the cause of a fire that killed over 70 people in the nation’s biggest city, Johannesburg as survivors reel from devastation.

South African police Friday cordoned off areas surrounding a burnt down five story apartment block in Johannesburg and used sniffer dogs, amid intensified investigations into the cause of the blaze that killed over 70 people in the early hours of Thursday.

Residents who had survived waited outside the building in hopes of being allowed to retrieve any of their belongings while police and forensic continued to comb the building.

Thembalethu Mpahlaza, an official of Gauteng province’s Forensic Pathology Services updated the death toll to 74 people.

Mpahlaza said most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition and investigations would have to rely on DNA samples from friends and relatives for identification.

"Only 12 of the 74 bodies they (forensic services) had recovered so far were identifiable by sight," he added.

Wambali Kaunda, one of the residents of the burnt down apartment that escaped the blaze said, "I am devastated," after losing his brother and niece to the blaze.

FILE - Men walk past sheets allegedly used by people to escape the scene of a deadly blaze at an apartment block in Johannesburg, South Africa September 1, 2023.
FILE - Men walk past sheets allegedly used by people to escape the scene of a deadly blaze at an apartment block in Johannesburg, South Africa September 1, 2023.

"We have been told that if you are able to identify your family members, then you will be able to collect the bodies," he added.

25-year-old Noluthando Tshikitsha came to see if she could retrieve any belongings.

"We used to live here, so we came to see if there is anything we can recover inside because our side of the building looks like it’s still intact," she explained.

While household fires are common in Johannesburg, especially in poor areas, the incident has highlighted a housing crisis in one of the world's most unequal cities with widespread poverty and joblessness — sentiments echoed by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

While addressing victims on Thursday, Ramaphosa said the fire was a "great tragedy" and a wakeup call for South Africa to tackle its inner-city housing crisis.

Gauteng officials Thursday said some of the victims were either renting from or were extorted by criminal gangs in the so called "hijacked buildings" syndicates run by unknown groups, this despite ownership by municipal authorities that struggled to provide a clear picture of who lived there.

Meanwhile, members of the African National Congress (ANC) party, together with clergy from various churches who arrived at the scene of the fire to offer prayers to victims, were booed by some of the bystanders and former residents of the building.

They could be seen and heard hurling insults at the delegation, saying song and prayer would not help those who are still reeling from the tragedy.

Tumi Moleko-Nkomo and her two sons shouted from their stand on the sidewalk where they had been handing out sandwiches to survivors of the fire.

"People are hungry. People have been dis-homed. They don't homes anymore, they've been displaced. So there's no support for them. There's not financial support, there's no food support, there's no housing support when they could be doing so much more. Which is quite unfair. They can't fix this with a song," she said.

A resident of the Usindiso building, Emmanuel Mahangula asked what officials were doing to survivors, as he recounted his struggle to bury his roommates the previous day.

Information in this report came from Reuters and the Associated Press.