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A catastrophic fire in South Africa has taken the lives of dozens of people

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In South Africa, more than 70 people have died in a fire in downtown Johannesburg. Authorities, who are still looking for a cause, say that that death toll is expected to rise. Firefighters have extinguished the blaze, but tearful relatives have now gathered outside the charred remains of the building in hopes of finding loved ones who might have survived. Kate Bartlett has been following this for us from Johannesburg, and she's with us on the line now. Kate, thank you so much for being here.

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what have authorities said so far about the circumstances of this fire?

BARTLETT: Well, the fire broke out in a five-story building in the early hours of this morning in Johannesburg's central business district. The death toll has been rising all morning and is expected to continue to do so as they find bodies in the charred remains of the building. The building has been absolutely gutted. And media reports say, you know, there were terrible scenes of people throwing themselves out of the windows to escape the fire, and some of them may have died because of that. And we're also learning that some of the victims were young children. Survivors have been taken to hospitals, but anxious relatives have been outside the building site looking for loved ones, unsure if they are dead or alive. And authorities say they're still investigating the exact cause of the blaze.

MARTIN: So Kate, this may be obvious to those who are there, but why is the death toll so high? Have authorities said anything about that?

BARTLETT: Yes. So it appears it broke out in what South Africans call a hijacked building, possibly a building with a couple of hundred people living there. In downtown Johannesburg, by the way, most businesses have long moved out of the so-called CBD into the suburbs. There are lots of empty, derelict buildings, abandoned buildings, and many of these are being squatted in, often by foreign migrants who come to Johannesburg seeking a better life. And authorities said it seems squatters set up makeshift sort of shacks within the building to partition it, which would have been highly flammable, you know, wood and cardboard and things like that. And these buildings don't usually have electricity connections, but sometimes people use sort of illegal connections. Or they could also have been using candles or a fire inside to light the building. So fires in what are called informal settlements are not that uncommon, but this is definitely the worst in Johannesburg's recent history.

MARTIN: So then the question becomes - could this have been prevented if the authorities know that these settlements exist? I mean, is there something that could have been done?

BARTLETT: Look, questions are definitely going to be asked about why nothing has been done for years about these hijacked buildings which pose an obvious fire risk. I'm seeing reports that this building was owned by the city of Johannesburg but had been abandoned a while ago. And there have been several tragedies in the last year, many blamed on municipal negligence, including the deaths of 21 young people who were drinking underage at a tavern in the Eastern Cape and died of asphyxiation. And then last month, a deadly blast tore through a street in central Johannesburg, absolutely ripped up the tarmac, and that was blamed on a methane gas explosion underground. So, you know, critics say infrastructure is breaking down, and some people are asking why, in Africa's most developed economy, millions of people still live in shacks, you know. Housing for the poorest, they say, should have been built in the decades since apartheid, but that money has been lost to corruption.

MARTIN: That is Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. Kate, thank you.

BARTLETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Kate Bartlett
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