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At least 74 killed in Johannesburg building fire; more than 50 injured

Witnesses say there may have been as many as 200 people in the dilapidated building at the time of the fire.
At least 74 killed in Johannesburg building fire; more than 50 injured
Posted at 5:25 AM, Aug 31, 2023

At least 74 people have died after an apartment building caught fire in Johannesburg, South Africa, early Thursday, with that number expected to go up as the search for victims continues, according to local officials.

Officials said at least 12 of those killed were children, the youngest being a 1-year-old, and that there are still an undetermined number of people missing, as many bodies recovered were burned beyond recognition. 

Six of the more than 50 injured remain hospitalized in serious condition.

According to firefighters, the fire started at 1 a.m. local time inside a multi-story abandoned building in the heart of Johannesburg's central business district. It was mainly occupied by homeless people, and witnesses say there could have been as many as 200 people inside when it caught fire, though Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said he couldn't say exactly how many were inside.

A local government official, Mgcini Tshwaku, said occupants were trapped in part due to the building not having proper fire escape routes. 

Some residents escaping the flames threw babies out of third-story windows to others waiting below, the Associated Press reported, as firefighters worked for three hours to contain the flames.

One survivor was able to save himself and his 1-year-old, but he said he didn't know where his wife was.

"Everything happened so fast and I only had time to throw the baby out," Adam Taiwo told AP. "I also followed him after they caught him downstairs."

Firefighters working inside the destroyed building laid dozens of recovered bodies on the street outside the burned building, with some covered just in blankets after body bags ran out.

"This is a tragedy for Johannesburg. Over 20 years in the service, I've never come across something like this," Emergency Services Management spokesman Robert Mulaudzi told AP.

Gwamanda said many inhabitants were foreign nationals, which could make identifying the dead and missing more difficult.

While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Tshwaku said there were signs of some people possibly lighting candles or fires inside the building to keep warm.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the tragedy is a "wake-up call" that change is needed in South Africa's housing crisis.

Though Johannesburg is Africa's richest city, its center isn't wealthy, with many abandoned buildings being used for shelter by homeless people.

The building that caught fire was reportedly a heritage site owned but not managed by the city.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

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