Identifying Victims in South African Fire Is a Grim Struggle

Families of the victims of a fire in downtown Johannesburg were still searching for relatives at mortuaries and hospitals on Friday to see if they had lived or died, a day after the blaze tore through an overcrowded building in one of the deadliest residential fires in South African history.

The fire, which broke out in the early hours of Thursday, consumed a five-story building that was an illegal home for hundreds of families and which has become a grisly symbol of official failure to address a dire housing crisis in Johannesburg.

At least 74 people died in the fire, a dozen of them children, with some victims jumping to their deaths from the building and others trapped inside.

Health officials on Friday urged people to come forward to identify their relatives at a mortuary, adding that 40 men and 24 women were among the victims. Ten other bodies were so badly burned they were beyond recognition, they said, and DNA testing would be used to identify them. On Friday morning, the police were seen taking search dogs around the charred site.

Relatives of people caught in the blaze have been visiting hospitals where officials said more than 60 people were being treated, hoping to find family members alive, and a hotline had been set up to help families trace relatives. Those fearing the worst gathered outside mortuaries on Friday morning, with some saying they had received confusing information about where to go.

“All I want to see today — is to see the body,” one man who said he believed his brother had died in the fire told SABC News. “I hear, yes, but I need to see. But right now we are still in the dark,” he added.

A faith-based organization hosted a prayer service on Friday to mourn the victims of a disaster that officials said should never have happened.

“This is the type of death that we never wish on anyone,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday evening at the scene of the blaze. Assistance would be given to survivors who lost their homes, many of whom were in a state of shock and injury, he said.

He called the tragedy a “wake-up call,” underlining the urgency of dealing with the chronic housing situation that afflicts poor parts of Johannesburg in particular.

The city’s officials needed to find solutions to the challenge of housing in one of South Africa’s most populous cities, he said, adding that they would also root out “criminal elements” preying on vulnerable people in need. Residents of the burned building have described a system in the building in which organized groups demanded payment from them.

The cause of the blaze remained unclear on Friday morning and officials said they were setting up an investigation, which may take some time.

Preliminary evidence suggested that the fire started on the ground floor of the building, a local official said, and a security gate may have trapped many residents as they tried to flee. Some of the earliest flames, according to imagery of the fire, were spotted in the building’s courtyard but the exact origin of the blaze was unknown.

Rights groups and residents said they have long feared such a tragedy in a city where hundreds derelict structures are illegally occupied. Thousands of residents, including South Africans and migrants struggling to find employment and housing, live in dangerous conditions.

The buildings often do not have access to running water, electricity and working bathrooms, or safety features like fire escapes, extinguishers and sprinklers. That has prompted residents to light open fires for light, cooking and warmth.

The building that burned on Thursday is owned by the city. Formerly used for controlling the movement of Black workers during the apartheid era, in recent years the building had been leased to a nonprofit group that offered women and children emergency shelter. But it was then abandoned, residents said, and became a warren of subdivided dwellings in which hundreds of people had sheltered.

In October 2019, the authorities raided the building and arrested 140 people in an illegal rent scheme, said Floyd Brink, the city manager of Johannesburg, but the case was closed in 2022 for lack of evidence.

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