The toxic chemical was found in the bloodstreams of all 21 teenagers, whose lifeless bodies police found slumped over chairs and couches, lying on tables and sprawled on the dance floor at Enyobeni Tavern.
But investigators still aren’t sure if the levels found were high enough to have killed the teens.
“Methanol has been detected in all the 21 individuals that were there, however there is still progressive analysis of the quantitative levels of methanol and whether it could have been the final cause of death,” Dr. Litha Matiwane, Eastern Cape provincial deputy director for clinical service, said at a press conference on Tuesday.
More conclusive results will come later, after a laboratory in Cape Town finishes its analysis, he said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, methanol poisoning usually occurs when people drink beverages contaminated with the chemical, but inhaling high concentrations of methanol vapour has also proved to be just as toxic.
It’s unclear at this juncture how the 21 teens were poisoned with methanol.
Initially, authorities thought the victims had died because of alcohol poisoning or carbon monoxide inhalation, but both of these potential causes have since been ruled out, said Matiwane.
National Police Minister Bheki Cele said the South African police will wait until the final toxicology analysis comes through before deciding if anyone will face criminal charges for the 21 deaths.
In the wake of the tragedy, the owner and some employees of Enyobeni Tavern were arrested for violating liquor trading laws, including selling liquor to children, but are currently out on bail.
Background on the deaths
Police said they were called to the Enyobeni Tavern in the city of East London in Eastern Cape province at around 4 a.m. on Sunday, June 26 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. The youngest victim was a 13-year-old girl and the oldest victims were 17.
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.
Survivors spoke of smelling a strong and suffocating smell that filled the packed club as teens started to collapse on the dance floor.
“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.”
“They died as they danced,” Police Minister Bheki Cele said. “They dance, fall, and die. Literally.”
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.
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. 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.”
— With files from The Associated Press