A fire that tore through a derelict apartment block in Johannesburg killed at least 73 people and injured 43, officials and local media said on Thursday.
The blaze, whose cause was under investigation, started at around 1.30 a.m. local time (2330 GMT), Johannesburg Emergency Management spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said.
“The building was full of informal occupants,” Mulaudzi said. “The fire started on the ground floor and quickly spread upwards.”
At 10 a.m., the five-storey building was still smouldering, a large part of it blackened by soot, as emergency services gathered around it and bodies lay covered in blankets on a nearby street, a Reuters reporter said.
Municipal government speaker Colleen Makhubele implied those inside had been occupying the building illegally, and that the city had sought but often failed to evict squatters from such buildings.
“They had been to blame for ‘not heeding to the call of the city to do the right thing…,'” she told South Africa’s public broadcaster.
“Things like this happen … because the citizens are not willing to understand and work with us in upholding the laws and the bylaws of the city, in understanding what is safe, what is not safe.”
Makhubele did not confirm a report by local broadcaster News24 that the building that caught fire was derelict and had been occupied informally.
Johannesburg is one of the world’s most unequal cities with widespread poverty, joblessness and a housing crisis. It has about 15,000 homeless people, according to the provincial government of Gauteng, which includes South Africa’s biggest city.
Fires are common there. It suffers from chronic power shortages during which many resort to candles for light and wood fires for heat.
“This is a tragedy of immense proportions,” said Gauteng Premier David Makhura. “We are doing everything we can to help the families of the victims.”
The government has announced an investigation into the fire.