Photos taken at the scene Thursday morning showed bodies in the street covered with fabric and blown-out apartment windows. At least 200 people may have been living in the building, the Associated Press reported Thursday, citing witnesses. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear.
“We don’t know what caused the fire but since it is a hijacked [squatted] building or an abandoned building there might be two options here: it might be an illegal [electricity] connection or it might be other heating devices they are using because we are told at the time the fire started they didn’t have electricity,” Mulaudzi said in an interview carried by South African outlet TimesLive.
A video shared by Mulaudzi to X, formerly Twitter, shows emergency services at the scene as members of the public crowd the streets, many hoping for updates about the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Many buildings in Johannesburg’s downtown were taken over by squatters after businesses left the central business district in the transition out of apartheid.
Councilor Mgcini Tshwaku, a member of Johannesburg’s public safety committee, told local news outlet eNCA that one of the reasons the death toll from the blaze was so high was due to “a lot of partitions” inside the building such as an internal security gate that blocked people’s exit.
“One of the things that really was an issue was that inside the building itself, it looks as if there was a gate which was closed so people could not get out,” he said. “They wanted to get out but they could not.”
Tshwaku said many buildings like the one that caught fire have formally been declared by officials as unsafe and closed, though this one, like many other in the city’s downtown, was still being lived in.
A firefighter told local media Thursday that emergency services at the scene are asking residents not to return to the “informal settlement” to collect their belongings as the structure itself is likely to be hazardous.
“When I woke up I saw smoke in the house. I grabbed this child and I ran out,” one resident told eNCA, adding that she did not know the whereabouts of her other three sons, who were also inside the building.
Another mother told reporters at the scene that she was also searching for her child.
“The death toll is rising and I am getting very anxious,” she said through tears. “I don’t know if my daughter is alive.”