Johannesburg — At least 63 people died when a fire ripped through a five-story building in Johannesburg that had been overtaken by homeless people, emergency services said Thursday.
Spokesman Robert Mulaudzi said another 43 people were injured in the blaze that broke out in the predawn hours. Many were suffering from smoke inhalation, he told reporters.
He said the death toll was still likely to increase in what he described as effectively “an informal settlement.”
“Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Mulaudzi said.
A search and recovery operation was underway and firefighters were moving floor-to-floor through the building, Mulaudzi said. The team had pulled 63 bodies out so far, he said, adding that more might be trapped inside.
Emergency services workers were bringing charred bodies out of the building and putting blankets and sheets over them on the street outside.
At least one child was among the dead, Mulaudzi said.
Authorities said the fire had been largely extinguished, but smoke still seeped out of windows of the blackened building downtown. Strings of sheets and other materials also hung out of some windows. It wasn’t clear if people had used those to try and escape the fire or if they were trying to save their possessions.
The cause of the blaze wasn’t immediately clear.
Mulaudzi said homeless people had moved into the building without any formal lease agreements. He said that made it hard to search the structure.
There might have been as many as 200 people living in the building, witnesses said.
Agence France-Presse reported that it’s common for people to live illegally in unused buildings in the city center — with many said to be run by criminal syndicates who charge occupants rent.
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