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Why the Johannesburg Apartment Building Was a Firetrap

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It may take time to determine what started an apartment fire in Johannesburg early Thursday morning and why more than 70 people died. But witness accounts, imagery of the blaze and a visit to the site in May indicate that the five-story building had a litany of major safety issues that made it vulnerable to a deadly fire.

Preliminary evidence suggests the fire started on the ground floor, a local official said, and trapped many residents behind locked gates as it spread. While precise origin of the fire is unknown, some of the earliest flames were spotted in a courtyard behind the building where people were living.

The city-owned building was officially abandoned, but it was serving as a crowded informal settlement for people who need to be close to the city center but couldn’t afford even the lowest rents. Squatters regularly subdivided rooms into tiny spaces and rented them out.

Without regular electricity, residents also used fire for warmth and light in the crowded building. Flammable materials like cardboard and sheets subdivided living spaces. Electric cables dangled from the ceiling.

The building’s dangerous conditions were visible in photos from a visit to the building in May by New York Times journalists, who were reporting an article about the chaotic state of the city.

One of the building’s residents, Sinenhlanhla Cele, said she woke up to flames in the courtyard below the building. Photos show corrugated metal structures built in the courtyard alongside piles of trash.

Mgcini Tshwaku, the Johannesburg councilman who oversees public safety, said a gate to prevent burglary trapped many residents, who were unable to escape the fire. The building’s flammable interior, paired with an obstructed escape, may have made the blaze especially deadly.

But it was unclear where residents became trapped. One report said that the building had multiple anti-burglary gates, possibly preventing residents from moving from one floor to another.

Mr. Tshwaku said people were jumping out of windows to escape when he arrived at the scene of the fire. At least one person, a teenager, died when she jumped from the fifth floor, according to her friend.

In photos from after the fire, sheets were seen hanging out of windows on one side of the building where residents escaped.

Mr. Tshwaku said that city inspectors who had visited the building described conditions similar to many of the more than 600 other illegally occupied derelict buildings in the city. They often lack fire escapes, fire extinguishers, water, electricity and working bathrooms.

In October 2019, city officials raided the building and arrested 140 foreign nationals for illegally collecting rent from tenants in the building, according to Floyd Brink, the city manager of Johannesburg. This happened just months after illegal occupants took over the building, which had been a shelter for women and children.

But the city last did a safety inspection at the building in June 2019, before it was illegally taken over. Officials have not entered it since.

“We wouldn’t want to go into a hostile environment,” Rapulane Monageng, acting chief of emergency management services for the city, said at a news conference.

Sarah Eckinger contributed reporting.

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