In the center of the South African metropolis of Johannesburg, 74 people died in a major fire in a building. Twelve children were among the dead, the city authorities said after the rescue operation was completed. At least 52 other people were injured, said the spokesman for the local rescue service, firefighter Robert Mulaudzi, on Platform X (formerly Twitter).

The youngest victim is about one and a half years old, Mulaudzi told journalists. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my 23 years of service,” he said. “It’s a very sad day.” South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa traveled to Johannesburg at short notice.

The United Nations, meanwhile, extended its condolences to the families of the victims and to the government. “The UN country team in South Africa stands ready to work with the authorities to provide assistance to those affected and to prevent further incidents of this kind,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York. He wished the injured a speedy recovery.

300 people have become homeless

The fire broke out in a five-story building in the city center during the night. The building was officially empty, but hundreds of people were actually living there illegally. Around 300 people in 141 households were made homeless by the fire, said provincial infrastructure and settlement government official Lebogang Maile on X. The authorities have now drawn up plans for the resettlement of those affected.

Rescue workers systematically combed the building in search of other victims. As Mulaudzi described, the squatters had set up dozens of “huts” on each floor to shield their living quarters. In many cases there were no escape routes. It was unclear how many people were in the building at the time of the fire.

Candles or cooking fires may cause fire

Since there is no power supply in illegally squatted buildings, candles or a cooking fire could have caused the blaze, Mgcini Tshwaku, a public security officer for the city of Johannesburg, told eNCA television. The cause of the fire was not yet clarified.

The city center of Johannesburg is considered run-down and dangerous. Many years ago, companies and shops moved to the surrounding districts due to the high crime rate. As a result, numerous buildings in the city center are empty, many of them occupied by homeless people. Property owners there have long since stopped maintaining their properties, which have fallen in market and rent prices.

Arrests after police search

According to Maile, the building belonged to the city of Johannesburg and had previously been rented to an association working to protect abused women. However, the organization was later dissolved “for security reasons”. Arrests were made when the police and security authorities searched the premises at an unspecified time. At that time, it was already established that rent had been charged for the premises.

Numerous people gathered in front of the building’s barrier, waiting for news from relatives. The South African Times newspaper spoke to a woman who was looking for her brother. The father of five said he lived in the building after coming to Johannesburg from his home province to look for work. “He lived on the third floor, at the very end of the hall. I used to visit him regularly,” the woman reported. Her brother was a lawyer but worked for a food company. He couldn’t afford better accommodation. “It’s an unhealthy and dirty place.”