Tragedy Strikes as Fatal Fire Engulfs Informal Housing in Johannesburg
A devastating fire tore through a five-story building in central Johannesburg that had been converted into informal housing, resulting in a death toll of at least 73 people and leaving dozens more injured. Rescue officials worked tirelessly, searching through each floor of the building to locate survivors and recover charred bodies strewn across the streets. Disturbingly, children are believed to be among the victims.
The fire has now been extinguished, as confirmed by authorities. Robert Mulaudzi, spokesperson for the city’s emergency services, reported that over 50 individuals sustained injuries during the incident. Wiseman Mpepa, a survivor, recounted waking up to the sound of screams and discovering the fire blocking the building’s exit. Although he managed to break his window, escaping proved difficult.
Mpepa attempted to guide others towards an exit gate, but to their dismay, it was shut. He expressed his helplessness, stating that he had no plan and simply sat in his room. Videos captured shortly after the fire erupted showed massive orange flames engulfing the lower floors, while onlookers gathered outside to witness the tragic scene.
Photos from the following morning depicted crowds surrounding the burnt-out and cordoned-off areas, broken glass windows, and scattered clothing strewn around the building. While the cause of the blaze remains uncertain, authorities at the scene have not indicated any signs of deliberate action. The fire erupted around 1:30 a.m. when most occupants were asleep.
This horrific incident occurred in a “hijacked” building in central Johannesburg, as described by Mulaudzi, referring to buildings abandoned by landlords and taken over by gangs or groups who then lease them to migrants and impoverished South Africans who lack affordable housing alternatives. These “hijacked” buildings, a common sight in downtown Johannesburg, often fail to meet basic safety regulations.
Mpepa, who had been residing in the building with his family members, expressed his uncertainty about their whereabouts and the loss of everything they owned. Another survivor, Kenny Bupe, revealed that the fire escape was closed, leading to fatalities due to smoke inhalation and the intense pressure at the gate.
Omar Foart, a survivor from Malawi, shared the heart-wrenching story of losing his sister and leaving behind all his belongings while fleeing the fire. He recounted how his sister entrusted her young daughter to the people on the ground, who caught her as she was tossed from a window.
This tragic incident highlights the dire living conditions within these informal settlements, which frequently disregard essential safety regulations. Local authorities equated the building to an informal settlement, noting that the apartments, originally intended for two or three occupants, had been partitioned to accommodate multiple people.
“Hijacked buildings” have faced condemnation in South Africa, and efforts have been made to impose regulations. However, authorities have faced criticism for their perceived failure to address the issue effectively. While the country has witnessed other devastating fires in informal settlements in recent months, Thursday’s incident stands as one of the deadliest in recent memory.