CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — A retired Constitutional Court judge will lead an official inquiry into last week’s fire at a derelict building in downtown Johannesburg that left at least 76 people dead in one of South Africa’s worst tragedies, the government said Tuesday.
Justice Sisi Khampepe will lead a three-member panel seeking to establish “who must shoulder total responsibility for this tragedy,” the government said. The inquiry will also look at the prevalence of rundown buildings that are illegally “hijacked.”
The fire ripped through a city-owned building that had effectively been abandoned by authorities and taken over by unofficial “landlords” who were illegally renting out space to around 200 poor families desperately looking for some form of accommodation.
People were living in shacks and other informal structures crammed into the five-story building, including in the basement parking garage, emergency responders said. The crowding and lack of proper fire escape routes likely contributed to the large number of deaths, emergency services said. Some people jumped out of windows three or four stories high in an attempt to escape the blaze, witnesses said.
The tragedy in the inner city’s Marshalltown district highlighted Johannesburg’s problem with broken-down buildings that are not under the control of city authorities.
The police commissioner for Gauteng province, which includes South Africa’s biggest city, said there are around 700 derelict buildings no longer under the control of officials in Johannesburg’s city center that pose a danger to those living inside them.
“In Johannesburg, the issue of stolen buildings is becoming a crisis, necessitating drastic action,” Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi said in a statement released by the government’s official news agency announcing the investigation. “A thorough intervention is required to ensure that disasters like the Marshalltown fire, one of the deadliest in recent memory, never happen again.”
The commission of inquiry will report its findings to Lesufi, who appointed the panel, the government said.
At least 12 of the victims of the night-time fire were children, and 88 other people were injured. Scores have been left homeless.
Many of those killed were foreign nationals from Malawi, Tanzania and other African nations, and authorities are appealing for help in identifying the bodies of victims now being held at Johannesburg mortuaries. More than 60 of the bodies were burned beyond recognition and require DNA analysis to confirm their identities, authorities said. They have given families 30 days to claim the bodies of relatives.
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