EAST LONDON, SOUTH AFRICA – Before losing consciousness amid crushing corpses, Simpongil Mtsweni was gasping for air as it felt like fire had crept into his nose and lungs. “When I came, I was on the second floor and started vomiting when I realized I was lying next to the dead,” he said.
Drawn by a Facebook notice, hundreds of young people, promising an end-of-term party with free alcohol and wi-fi, flocked to a packed bistro in East London, a city on the southern coast of South Africa.
Twenty-one of them, all teenagers, would not survive the night. A mass funeral will be held on Wednesday, when President Cyril Ramaphosa is scheduled to speak.
Witnesses and investigators – the entire nation – struggle to understand how a tumultuous night turned into a deadly stampede, leaving young men smashed and bleeding on the floors of Enyobeni Tavern, in the town of Scenery Park in East London.
“We came for fun, not for bodies,” said Lobapalo Dongeni, an 18-year-old high school student still limping five days after the accident.
The authorities gave no explanation as to why the people died or published the autopsy results, but the public and the authorities found plenty of targets for blame and anger. The license for the hastily built two-story pub and only one entrance is under scrutiny, the couple who run it are under criminal investigation, and a DJ who performed there says the community is “swinging” on their blood. There has been widespread speculation about which noxious gas filled the air, who released it, and whether it contributed to the deaths, the deadly panic, or both.
Six people who were inside the bar, as well as others who were outside, said in interviews that the combination of the mysterious gas, the collapse of the people, and the airless room caused the tragedy.
The townspeople are angry at the local police for taking hours to answer emergency calls. Beyond East London, the episode sparked a national debate about underage drinking and the place of alcohol in South Africa. Some people point out other systematic failures, from the location and construction of the pub to the lax enforcement of township liquor licensing laws.
The ages of the dead are 14 and under 18. The legal age to enter a bar and drink in South Africa is 18.
The teens who were there that night seemed to be shocked.
Members of the high school boys’ soccer team were at the bar, but the midfielder and goalkeeper never made it out. The team striker said he is now suffering from the guilt of the survivor.
A 19-year-old blames herself for helping her 17-year-old friend get into the party, when she dies. When a group of teenagers recently visited the bar to put white plastic roses at its entrance, they were emotional.
The entrance, a single metal door painted brown, was the epicenter of the chaos that night. The party was supposed to end at midnight on Saturday, June 25, but outside, dozens of people were still trying to get in, according to cellphone videos. After 12:30 in the morning the pub darkened, but no one turned back – blackouts are common in South Africa.
As the flashing disco lights returned minutes later, survivors said, gas blew out on the ground floor. Some said it smelled like pepper spray, others likened it to tear gas.
People rushed out, while those outside on a cold winter night tried to get in. Witnesses said the guards closed the door, trapping everyone inside.
While dance music, a popular local style called amabiano, beat on the second floor, people on the ground floor were climbing on top of each other to get out, breaking the only two windows in a room of no more than 350 square feet.
Brian Mapesa, a rapper who had just finished his set on the second floor, said he heard a gasping sound around him. He was making his way downstairs to the exit when the door closed and the crowd started. The trapped people pressed him hard, and his legs went numb.
He remembers being hit by two people while trying to climb over him, with the half-circle of scabs on his forearms remaining red after six days. Mapesa said the gas felt a tingling sensation when it touched his wounds. He felt dizzy, sinking to his knees.
Survivors remember that the music only stopped when the screams broke out. Neon lights, bouncing off yellow walls with swirling brown murals, luminous objects stretched out on the dance floor, and friends couldn’t bring them to life.
Some people jumped from the second floor. Only then did guards open the single door to move some of the bodies outside, several survivors said.
Nolitha Qhekaza’s bedroom window is located a few feet from the entrance to the pub. When people jumped off the balcony, they landed on the roof of her house. She said the dead and wounded teens were laid out in her front garden. A girl with a broken leg lay on the floor of her dining room until 7 am
In the early hours of that Sunday morning, Ms. Khakaza, a 55-year-old grandmother, called the police 10 times between 2:25am and 3:35am, her call records show.
Neighbors said that police and ambulances finally started arriving around 4 a.m. When the officers cordoned off the area, the parents tried to get past the bar. Some of the unconscious victims were still inside the bar, scattered on leather sofas or lying on the dance floor – dead and injured side by side.
Pictures of the scene spread on social media. This is how some parents learned not only that their children were out that night, but that they had died.
“My son was going forward,” said Sedwin Rangel, father of Mbolillo Rangel, the soccer team’s goalkeeper.
Mr. Rangel could not find his son in the local hospitals, so he hurried to the morgue. At first, he did not recognize his son’s corpse among the rows of corpses because the boy’s skin had turned very dark. Her friend, Senningongo Futhumani, who was also at the bar, said another victim, a 17-year-old, was not reciprocated just hours after her death.
Even bereaved parents like Mr. Rangel have faced criticism in the extensive news coverage of the disaster.
“If the finger is to be pointed, it must be pointing to all of us,” he said. “But it is not fair to blame us.”
The bar’s owners, Siyakhangela and Vuyokazi Ndevu, have endured much public condemnation.
The tavern, which shares a wall with several private homes, has long divided this community, as residents have used their savings to slowly build their homes. Neighbors complained of urine stains on their walls, empty bottles scattered outside, parties that lasted until eight in the morning, and vomiting of children in their gardens.
Ndevus declined to comment.
Several neighbors said they met police and an inspector from the Eastern Cape Brewers Board just three weeks before the disaster. But spokesmen for the Alcohol Sales Council and the police said they had no record of complaints about the pub.
The pub’s license was granted in 2012, but the liquor board was unaware that the owner had added a second floor in recent years.
Last week, the liquor board filed a criminal case against Vuyokazi Ndevu, in whose name the license was granted, for selling alcohol to minors. The police did not say whether charges would be brought against her.
Nationally, talk has turned to alcohol abuse and unregulated bars in South Africa, particularly in poor, mostly black towns. More than half of South Africans do not drink alcohol, but those who report excessive drinking, According to the World Health Organization.
Going to a bar to drink is common among teens, and seen as the lesser of two evils, said soccer coach Ludomo Salman, who founded the high school student soccer club, in Senri Park, where drug abuse is on the rise.
“I hope this is a wake-up call, because this is a reality all over South Africa,” said Istho Sotheni, who runs a youth non-profit in East London towns.