EAST LONDON, South Africa — Simbongile Mtsweni gasped for breath before passing out in his crushed corpse, gas that felt like fire crawling into his nose and lungs. “When I woke up,” he said, “I was on the second floor and when I realized I was lying next to a dead person, I started throwing up.”
Hundreds of young people flocked to a bistro in East London, a city on South Africa’s south coast, attracted by a notice on Facebook promising a free drink and Wi-Fi party at the end of term.
Twenty-one of them, all teenagers, couldn’t make it through the night. There will be a mass funeral on Wednesday, with a speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Witnesses, investigators – an entire country – are struggling to understand how a night of revelry turned into a deadly stampede, leaving broken and bloody youngsters on the floor of the Enyobeni Tavern in Scenic Parktown, East London.
“We’re here for fun, not for dead bodies,” said Lubabalo Dongeni, an 18-year-old high school student who is still limping five days after the incident.
Authorities haven’t said how people died or released autopsy results, but the public and authorities have found plenty of targets for blame and outrage. The license for the hastily built two-storey, one-entry bistro is under review, the couple running it is under criminal investigation, and a DJ performing there says the community is “fighting for his blood”. Speculation has been rife as to who released the poisonous gas that filled the air, and whether it caused death, deadly panic, or both.
The six people who were in the pub and others outside said in interviews that mysterious gas, human squeezing and unventilated rooms may have contributed to the tragedy.
Township residents were outraged that local police spent hours responding to emergency calls. Outside east London, the incident has sparked a national debate over underage drinking and the status of alcohol in South Africa. Some pointed to other systemic failures, from the location and construction of pubs to lax enforcement of township liquor licensing laws.
The deceased were only 14 years old, and most were under 18. In South Africa, the legal age to enter a bar to drink is 18.
The teenagers who were there that night were visibly traumatized.
A member of the high school boys soccer team was in the tavern, but a midfielder and goalie never came out. The team’s forward said he is now battling survivor guilt.
A 19-year-old girl blamed herself for helping her 17-year-old friend at a party, where she died. When a group of teenagers visited the bistro recently, they were filled with emotion when they placed white plastic roses at the entrance of the bistro.
The entrance, a metal door painted brown, was the focal point of the chaos that night. Video taken with a cell phone showed that the party was due to end at midnight on Saturday, June 25, but dozens of people were still outside trying to get in. After 12.30pm, the pub was dark, but no one flinched – power outages are a common occurrence in South Africa.
But survivors said a puff of gas drifted across the first floor when the flashing disco lights resumed minutes later. Some say it smells like pepper spray, while others liken it to tear gas.
People rushed out while those outside tried to get in on a cold winter night. Witnesses said that at this point the bodyguards closed the door and trapped everyone inside.
When dance music, a popular local style called amapiano, pounded on the second floor, people on the first floor crawled out of each other, breaking the only two windows in a room no larger than 350 square feet.
Rapper Brian Mapisa, who had just finished performing on the second floor, said he could hear people around him gasping. He was going downstairs to the exit when the door closed and a crush started. The trapped man was pressed tightly on top of him, and his legs were numb.
He recalled that two people bit him as they tried to crawl over him, and the half-circle of scab on his forearm was still red six days later. Mr Mapisa said it stings when the gas touches his wound. He felt dizzy and fell to his knees.
Survivors recalled that the music stopped only when the screams cut through the chaos. Neon lights reflect swirling brown murals on yellow walls, illuminating corpses on the dance floor that friends can’t revive.
Someone jumped from the second floor. Several survivors said bodyguards opened the only door and carried some bodies outside.
The window of Nolitha Qhekaza’s bedroom is just a few feet from the entrance to the tavern. When people jumped from balconies, they landed on her roof. The dead and injured teens lay on her front lawn, she said.A girl with a broken leg lies on the floor of her restaurant until after 7am
Her call records show that in the early hours of that Sunday morning, 55-year-old grandmother Ms Qhekaza called the police 10 times between 2.25am and 3.35am.
Neighbors said police and ambulances finally began to arrive around 4 a.m. Parents tried to push the tape off as police cordoned off the area. Some of the unconscious victims are still in the pub, lying on sofas or just on the dance floor – the dead and the wounded side by side.
Photos of the scene circulated on social media. Just like that, some parents know not only that their kids were out that night, but that they’re dead.
“My son is popular,” said Sidwenn Rangile, father of soccer goalkeeper Mbulelo Rangile.
Unable to find his son at the local hospital, Mr Rangile rushed to the morgue. At first, he couldn’t recognize his son’s body among the rows because the boy’s skin had turned black. Another 17-year-old victim was similarly unrecognizable hours after her death, her friend Sinenjongo Phuthumani said.
Even grieving parents like Mr Rangel have faced criticism amid the deluge of news coverage of the disaster.
“If the finger is to be pointed, it has to be pointed at all of us,” he said. “But it’s not fair to blame us.”
Tavern owners Siyakhangela and Vuyokazi Ndevu bore most of the public condemnation.
The bistro shares a wall with several private residences, and has long divided the neighborhood, with residents slowly building homes with their savings. Neighbors complained of urine stains on the walls, empty bottles scattered outside, the party went on until 8am and the children vomited in the garden.
Ndevus declined to comment.
Several neighbours said they met with police and an inspector from the Eastern Cape Liquor Board just three weeks before the disaster. But spokesmen for both the Liquor Commission and the police said they had no record of complaints about the bistro.
In 2012, the tavern license was obtained, but the liquor bureau did not know that the owner had added a second floor in recent years.
Last week, the Liquor Commission brought criminal proceedings against Vuyokazi Ndevu, in whose name Vuyokazi Ndevu sold alcohol to minors. Police have not said whether they will bring charges against her.
Across the country, the conversation has turned to alcoholism and unregulated taverns in South Africa, especially in poor, predominantly black towns. More than half of South Africans do not drink alcohol, but those who report binge drinking, According to the World Health Organization.
Ludumo Salman, a football coach who runs a football club for high school students, said in scenic parks where drug use is rising, drinking in taverns is popular among teens and is considered a lesser evil.
“I hope this will be a wake-up call because this is a reality across South Africa,” said Esethu Sotheni, who runs a non-profit for young people in the East London township.