A raging fire has claimed the lives of at least 73 people, including a victim just one-year-old, in Johannesburg, South Africa, with more than 50 others injured.
The blaze in a five-story building, started in the early hours of 31 August in the Marshalltown area of the city centre, which was formerly a business district and economic hub.
It was being used as an informal settlement for homeless migrants from other African countries, while they looked for permanent accommodation.
Emergency services were quickly on the scene and by mid-morning most of the fire had been largely extinguished, but smoke still seeped out of windows of the blackened structure.
Authorities say it is too early to say what sparked the blaze and are now switching efforts to a search-and-recovery operation, with the death toll expected to rise.
In use as a homeless shelter
Reports suggested that as many as 200 people lived in the building and they had created a maze of shacks and other makeshift structures, partitioned within it, to act as temporary homes.
Robert Mulaudzi acting as spokesperson for the emergency services said the building’s status as a homeless shelter had made it harder to account for those killed and missing, as those living there were doing so without formal lease agreements.
Video footage captured huge flames consuming the lower levels of the building.
Death toll likely to grow
So far, in addition to the 73 confirmed fatalities, 52 people had been brought out injured, many reported to having serious back injuries, possibly from jumping from the windows.
Mr Mulaudzi said the search was under way to move floor by floor, but sadly rather than finding anyone trapped, they were only likely to discover more bodies.
Some of those who managed to get out are now camped outside anxiously waiting for news of their relatives. However, such was the intensity of the fire that it is likely that for the families of the missing it could be very difficult to identify bodies, as horrifically they will have been burnt beyond recognition.
Witnesses speak of horror
Witnesses reported hearing sickening screams coming from the building at around 2am as people desperately tried to escape the raging fire. Sibusiso Dladla, who lives opposite said she saw some people were throwing their children out of windows to try and save them from the flames.
Another unidentified resident was quoted as saying: “I heard people screaming ‘we are dying’ but I thought maybe I was dreaming.”
Social media war of words
Social Media has immediately been full of xenophobic attacks made against the victims, as well as the survivors of the fire, which has sparked a war of words with many responding with widespread condemnation.
“Hijacked” by cartels
The inner city neighbourhood is infamous for what is locally known as “hijacked” buildings, a South African term used to refer to buildings illegally taken over by undocumented migrants. Cartels are the root cause of these “hijackings” as they prey on the poor and vulnerable, and proceed to dangerously overfill abandoned and unsafe buildings.
Magnet for work opportunities
In recent years South Africa has become a magnet for people from neighbouring states such as: Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Lesotho who are drawn by the country’s economic strength and arrive to seek work, particularly in the mining sector.
Children amongst the dead
Bodies covered in blankets and sheets could be seen outside the devastated building, with heartbreakingly at least seven known to be those of children, the youngest just one-year-old.
Little chance of finding anyone else alive
The search is expected to continue throughout the day, although authorities say the prospects of finding anyone alive inside are “very slim” in what is already being described as the worst fire incident in Johannesburg’s recent history.