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Johannesburg building fire kills at least 74 people, many believed to be homeless

A nighttime fire ripped through a rundown apartment building mainly occupied by homeless people and squatters in Johannesburg early Thursday, leaving at least 74 dead, officials said. Some people threw babies out of third-storey windows to others waiting below in the desperate scramble to evacuate, witnesses said.

At least 12 children among the dead in overnight fire in South Africa's largest city

Fire guts Johannesburg building, killing at least 70

6 hours ago

Duration 2:46

More than 70 people are dead, including at least 12 children, after a fire burned through a derelict building in central Johannesburg occupied by squatters. Authorities say the building had been 'hijacked' by criminals who extorted money from squatters.

A nighttime fire ripped through a rundown apartment building mainly occupied by homeless people and squatters in Johannesburg early Thursday, leaving at least 74 dead, officials said. Some people threw babies out of third-storey windows to others waiting below in the desperate scramble to evacuate, witnesses said.

At least 12 of those killed were children, the youngest a one-year-old, according to city and medical officials, who held a press conference to give an update on the death toll. They said an undetermined number of people were still missing and many bodies recovered were burned beyond recognition.

More than 50 people were injured, six of whom were in serious condition in the hospital. Emergency services officials had earlier warned that the death toll could rise as they continued to search the scene more than 12 hours after the blaze broke out at around 1 a.m.

Several people are shown sitting on a city sidewalk.

Emergency Services Management spokesman Robert Mulaudzi earlier referred to the structure as a "hijacked building," a term used for abandoned and broken-down buildings common in some areas that have been taken over by people desperately seeking some form of accommodation.

"This is a tragedy for Johannesburg. Over 20 years in the service, I've never come across something like this," Mulaudzi said.

'People couldn't get out'

Mgcini Tshwaku, a local government official, said there were indications that people lit candles and fires inside the building for light and to keep warm in the winter cold. Officials were looking into the cause of the blaze but Tshwaku said the initial evidence suggested it started with a candle.

As the fire raged, some occupants got trapped behind locked gates at the exits, Tshwaku said, and it was clear there was no proper fire escape routes.

"People couldn't get out," he said.

A building fire is shown from an aerial view in a nighttime photo.

A firefighting ladder is seen extending from a low-rise building.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking at a previously scheduled event elsewhere in the country, said he hoped an investigation into the fire and any recommendations resulting from it would help "prevent the repeat of such a tragedy."

"Our hearts go out to every person who is affected by this disaster," he said.

Opposition Leader John Steenhuisen also expressed his condolences while describing the fire as "a catastrophe for our nation."

Harrowing escapes

Some of the survivors described how they jumped out of windows to escape the blaze, but only after tossing their children to others below.

"Everything happened so fast and I only had time to throw the baby out," said Adam Taiwo, who managed to save his one-year-old son.

"I also followed him after they caught him downstairs," said Taiwo, who did not know where his wife, Joyce, was.

WATCH | Survivors describe escaping burning building:

People who escaped a burning building overnght in Johannesburg, South Africa, recounted what they felt and saw. One man wept while telling reporters one of his sisters was hospitalized, while another had died in the fire.

A witness who lives in a building across the road said he saw others also throw babies out of the burning building and that at least one man died when he jumped from a window on the third floor and hit the concrete sidewalk.

Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said 141 families were affected by the tragedy but could not say exactly how many people were in the building when the fire started.

Several people stand outside in jackets watching a nearby scene.

Many of the people inside were foreign nationals, Gwamanda said. That could make identifying victims and tracing the missing hard as many were likely in South Africa illegally, other officials said.

Speaking at the scene, the Gauteng province's police commissioner, Lt. Gen. Elias Mawela, said the police were aware of approximately 700 buildings in central Johannesburg that were derelict and abandoned. He urged city authorities to act, and to bar squatters from the burned building in the future.

"Shut it down. That building." Mawela said.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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