As authorities continue their investigation into the mysterious deaths of 21 teenagers who died while partying at a South African nightclub, survivor statements have revealed new details about that deadly night.
To celebrate the end of school exams, a number of underage teenagers gathered at the Enyobeni Tavern in East London on Saturday evening and partied until the early hours of the next morning. Survivors speak of smelling a strong and suffocating smell that filled the packed club as teens started to collapse on the dance floor.
Police discovered bodies slumped over chairs and couches, lying on tables and sprawled on the dance floor of the club. The youngest victim was a 13-year-old girl.
“They died as they danced,” Police Minister Bheki Cele said. “They dance, fall, and die. Literally.”
“Others would just feel dizzy, sleep on the sofa, (and) die. It tells you the story that they were all kids because somebody should have taken note.”
A number of theories into how this tragedy occurred have emerged in the absence of hard answers. At first, police suspected that a stampede of people may have caused the deaths but that was quickly ruled out. A gas leak has also been suspected.
Forensic samples from the young victims are being tested at a toxicology laboratory to determine if the teens were poisoned.
Sinovuyo Monyane, 19, who was hired by the bar to promote an alcohol brand, was among the survivors and she counts herself lucky to be alive.
In an interview with AFP, she told the news agency that she escaped through a gridlocked door as clubgoers desperately tried to leave the gruesome scene.
“We tried moving through the crowd, shouting ‘please let us through,’ and others were shouting ‘we are dying, guys,’ and ‘we are suffocating’ and ‘there are people who can’t breathe,'” she said.
“I passed out at that moment. I was running out of breath and there was a strong smell of some type of spray on in the air. We thought it was pepper spray.”
Monyane regained consciousness after being sprayed with water.
“I got up and realized that there were bodies lying around. I saw people being poured water, but those people did not even move,” she said in a phone interview. “I could have died.”
AFP also spoke with a staff member at the bar, Sifiso Promise Matinise, who said he splashed water on collapsed teens in an attempt to wake them up. He thought they were just drunk until the gravity of the situation sank in.
“I saw two people collapse, they died,” he said.
Special investigators from Pretoria were brought in to investigate the deaths but, so far, no arrests have been made.
“The investigators continue to search for possible clues and answers at Enyobeni Tavern,” regional police spokesman Thembinkosi Kinana said.
Timeline of events
Police said they were called to the Enyobeni Tavern in the city of East London in Eastern Cape province at around 4 a.m. Sunday morning after receiving a report that there were “lifeless bodies” there.
Officers responding to the call walked in on a grim scene: 17 of the teenagers were found dead in the nightclub. Two more died at a local clinic, one died on the way to another hospital and one at that hospital. Their ages were between 13 and 17, police said.
Police spokeswoman Col. Athlenda Mathe said an investigation was ongoing and no cause of death had yet been established.
But Cele said forensic samples were being sent to an advanced toxicology laboratory in Cape Town, indicating that police were looking at the possibility that poison or a toxin was involved. Cele said the toxicology tests might take “a lot of time.”
“The suspicion is that it is something either they ingested through drinks, food, or something they inhaled,” Unathi Binqose, a provincial safety official, told AFP.
Initial reports speculated that the victims — 12 boys and nine girls — may have died in a crush because of overcrowding at the party, but authorities found no visible signs of injuries on the bodies and police have now ruled that out.
The teenagers were reportedly celebrating the end of mid-year exams, a local DJ’s birthday and the relaxing of some of the last COVID-19 restrictions in South Africa, which was announced earlier in the week.
Parents were asked to come to a mortuary to identify their children. The Eastern Cape health department said there were survivors being treated in the hospital for backache, tight chests, vomiting and headaches.
Police Minister Cele said the teenagers died between 2 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning. He had also visited the nightclub and the mortuary on Sunday and choked back tears as he spoke to reporters outside the mortuary.
“The sight of those bodies sleeping there … when you look at their faces you realize that you’re dealing with kids, kids, kids,” Cele said. “You’ve heard the story that they are young but when you see them you realize that it’s a disaster. Twenty-one of them. Too many.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is in Germany for the G7 summit, offered condolences to the families of the victims in a statement but also said he was concerned why “such young people were gathered at a venue which, on the face of it, should be off limits to persons under the age of 18.”
It’s illegal for anyone under 18 to consume or buy alcohol in South Africa and the Eastern Cape Liquor Board said it was revoking the nightclub’s liquor licence and would pursue criminal charges against the club’s licence holder.
The tragedy will put renewed scrutiny on the many bars and nightclubs operating in the backstreets of poor neighbourhoods in South Africa and which are often criticized for not abiding by liquor laws.
— with files from The Associated Press