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South Africa: Jo'burg town hall blamed for deadly fire

Doctors and rescue workers at the scene of a deadly fire in Johannesburg, 31 August 2023   -  
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Jerome Delay/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

South Africa

The City of Johannesburg and its entities are liable for the deaths of the 76 people in a building fire, a report has found.

Retired Judge Sisi Khampepe was put in charge of the inquiry, which began in October. She delivered the first part of her report on Sunday (May. 5) and concluded that the City of Joburg, which owns the building, had shown “total disregard” for its “calamitous state.”

Judge Khampepe recommended that disciplinary action be taken against the chief executive officer of the Johannesburg Property Company, which oversees the city's buildings. She also said that the building should be demolished, and a plaque erected as a memorial to the victims.

The nighttime fire at the five-story building in downtown Johannesburg in August last year, was one of South Africa's worst disasters.

At least 12 children were among the dead and another 86 people were injured, with some having to leap out of windows to escape the flames.

Others said they threw small children out the windows in the hope that they would be caught by people below. Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition having become trapped in the overcrowded building and it took authorities weeks to identify bodies using DNA tests.

No fire extinguisher, locked fire escape

In the wake of the fire, hundreds of people were found to be living illegally in the building, some of them in shacks that had been erected in the corridors, the bathrooms and the basement, which was meant to be a parking garage. Emergency services said that the fire extinguishers had been taken off the walls and the main fire escape was found to be locked on the night of the fire.

The inside of the building was strewn with waste and that combined with the makeshift wooden shacks to make the blaze especially deadly, Khampepe's report found.

READ MORE: Deadly Johannesburg fire "a wake-up call for us" - President Ramaphosa

Yet city officials, national immigration officials and police officers had raided the building in 2019, and "found the distressing living conditions in the building that contributed to the devastation of the fire," Khampepe told reporters after delivering her report.

There was a stunning development at the inquiry in January when a man due to testify as a resident that he had started the fire to burn the body of a man he had killed on the orders of a drug dealer.

The man was arrested and charged with 76 counts of murder and arson.

The tragedy shed light on the housing crisis and illegal landlords who rent out space to people desperate for somewhere to live. The buildings are often overcrowded and safety precautions are disregarded.

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