Fire fighters work on the scene of a deadly blaze that claimed the lives of dozens of people in downtown Johannesburg Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. / AP
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — At least 58 people died when a fire ripped through a multi-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. He said the death toll was likely to still 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 through the building, Mulaudzi said. The team had pulled 58 bodies out so far, he said, adding that more might be trapped inside.
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 was not clear if people had used those to try and escape the fire or if they were trying to save their possessions.
Mulaudzi said homeless people had moved into the building without any formal lease agreements. He said that made it hard to search the building.
There might have been as many as 200 people living in the building, witnesses said.