At least 74 dead in Johannesburg building fire, authorities say

The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

August 31, 2023, 2:28 PM

LONDON and JOHANNESBURG -- Dozens of people were killed in a fire that engulfed a five-story building in central Johannesburg early Thursday, authorities said.

The blaze broke out in the downtown area of South Africa's largest city at around 1:30 a.m. local time. Firefighters were dispatched to the scene and began evacuating people from the building while trying to extinguish the flames, according to the City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services.

At least 74 people, including 12 children, were confirmed dead by Thursday afternoon, according to Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda. Another 61 people were injured, including 17 who remain hospitalized, the Emergency Management Services said.

The cause of the fire was unknown and is being investigated.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke about the tragedy and offered condolences. "This is a tragedy, this is very sad and I want to pass on my condolences, and that of the government to the families of those who have passed on. This needs to be investigated. I was talking to the premiere earlier and we are going through, they are going through the process of setting up an investigation process, to which the premiere and the city will announce in due course," he said.

"But the lesson for us is that we have got to address this problem, and root and everything else, root out those criminal elements because it is these types of buildings that are taken over by criminals who then levy rents on vulnerable people and families, who need and want accommodation in this city, the inner city. It speaks to the types of cities that we should have," the president added.

Firefighters work on the scene of a deadly blaze that claimed the lives of dozens of people in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Aug. 31, 2023.

The death toll continued to rise throughout the day as firefighters went through the building floor by floor, searching for more victims.

"It has just been going up. It's devastating," Xolile Khumalo, spokesperson for the city's Emergency Management Services, told ABC News.

The victims are reportedly migrants from across the African continent and were living in what authorities reportedly described as an informal settlement inside the building, which had been previously abandoned, according to local media.

Investigators believe a total of 200 or more families were living in the building at the time of the blaze. The property is owned by the city and was previously leased to the provincial Department of Social Development, which used the building as a domestic violence shelter for women, according to the Johannesburg Emergency Management Services.

"At the conclusion of the lease, some challenges were encountered with the occupants and as a result of the hostilities and stalemate, the building was invaded and hijacked," the agency said in a statement on Thursday.

A firefighter extinguishes a fire at a five-story building in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Aug. 31, 2023.
Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images

In October 2019, authorities raided the property and arrested more than 140 foreign nationals. A suspect was also arrested and charged for illegally collecting rent from tenants in the building, according to the city's Emergency Management Services.

Amid concerns that those who survived the Thursday's fire would be left homeless, authorities are working to coordinate emergency accommodation, the Emergency Management Services said.

President Ramaphosa traveled to the scene in Johannesburg later Thursday. He described the deadly blaze as "unprecedented" and "a tragedy."

"Johannesburg has never had an incident like this," Ramaphosa told reporters there.

ABC News' Joe Simonetti contributed to this report.