An inquiry began Thursday into an apartment building fire that killed 76 people in South Africa in August and laid bare the deep problems of poverty and neglect in parts of Africa's richest city.
The nighttime blaze swept through a five-story building in the Marshalltown district of Johannesburg, trapping many of the hundreds of people who were living there in badly overcrowded conditions.
The building was believed to be one of what are known as “hijacked” buildings in Johannesburg. Authorities suspect it had been taken over by illegal landlords, who were renting out space to poor South Africans and foreign migrants looking desperately for somewhere to live.
Johannesburg Emergency Services acting chief Rapulane Monageng gave the first testimony of the inquiry and said that firefighters found no fire extinguishers anywhere in the building. They had all been taken off the walls, he said. A large fire hose had also been removed and the water pipe supplying it had been converted for “domestic use,” he testified.
The doors to the building's main fire escape were chained closed and other emergency exits were locked, and there was only one way in and out of the building, he said. The inside of the building was littered with small living areas partitioned off with plywood and other highly flammable materials and people were living in the stairways, corridors and bathrooms.
“It was mind-boggling that (people) even took a bathroom and converted it into a bedroom,” Monageng said.
The crowded conditions and the wood used for shacks and partitions combined to make it an extremely dangerous fire hazard, he said.
He called it a “ticking time bomb.”
Police opened a criminal case in the days after the fire in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 31 and declared the building a crime scene, but no one has been formally charged over one of South Africa’s deadliest urban fires.
It also came to light that the building was owned by the city, but authorities had effectively abandoned it and weren't in control of its running.
The inquiry was announced by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in early September. It's being overseen by a three-member panel headed by retired Constitutional Court judge Justice Sisi Khampepe and is aimed at uncovering what the cause of the fire was and if anyone should be held responsible for the 76 deaths, which included at least 12 children.
More than 80 people were injured, including many who sustained broken limbs and backs after jumping out of the building's windows to escape the fire.
The bodies of 33 of the 76 victims of the fire still haven't been claimed by relatives and remain at a mortuary in Johannesburg two months later, a provincial health department spokesman said in a statement