EAST LONDON, South Africa – Simbangail Emtsweni was laughing for a gas-like air that felt like fire in his nose and lungs before he stepped out into the fray. “When I got there,” he said, “I was on the second floor and started vomiting when I realized I was lying next to a dead man.”
Hundreds of young people, drawn by a notice on Facebook promising a party at the end of the school term with free alcohol and Wi-Fi, crowded a small, packed inn in East London, a town on the south coast of South Africa.
Twenty-one of them, all teenagers, will not live at night. A mass funeral will be held with President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday.
Eyewitnesses, investigators – the entire nation – are struggling to understand how a happy night turned into a fatal stampede, leaving broken and bloodied young men on the floor of the Enobeni Tavern in East London’s Scenery Park Township.
“We’re here for fun, not for corpses,” said Lubabalo Dongeni, an 18-year-old high school student.
Authorities have not given an account of why the man died or published the results of the autopsy, but the public and authorities have found plenty of targets for blame and anger. The hastily licensed inn, with two floors and just one entrance, is being scrutinized, the couple running it are under criminal investigation, and a DJ performing there says the community is “beying” for his blood. There has been widespread speculation about the toxic gas that filled the air, who released it, and whether it contributed to death, panic, or both.
The six people who were inside the inn, as well as others outside, said in an interview that a combination of mysterious gas, a human crash and an airless room could be the cause of the tragedy.
City residents are furious with the local police for taking hours to respond to emergency calls. Outside of East London, the episode has sparked a national debate about juvenile alcoholism and the place of alcohol in South Africa. Some point to other systemic failures, ranging from the location and construction of the inn to the lax enforcement of the liquor license law in the township.
The dead were under 13 years of age and mostly under 18 years of age. The legal age for entering a bar and drinking in South Africa is 18 years.
The teenagers who were there that night apparently suffered trauma.
Members of a high school boys’ soccer team were in the inn, but a midfielder and goalkeeper never found out. The team striker says he is now struggling with the guilt of surviving.
A 19-year-old blames himself for helping his 17-year-old friend go to a party where he died. Recently, when a group of teenagers entered the inn to spread white plastic roses, they were overwhelmed with emotion.
The entrance, a single metal door painted brown, was the epicenter of chaos that night. The party was supposed to end at midnight on Saturday, June 25, but outside, according to video taken with cellphones, dozens of people were still trying to get inside. After 12:30 pm, the inn went dark, but no one jumped – a blackout of electricity is a common occurrence in South Africa.
But as soon as the flashing disco lights returned a few minutes later, a gas leaked through the ground floor, survivors said. Some say it smells like pepper spray, while others compare it to tear gas.
People rush to get out, when outsiders try to get in on a cold winter night. That’s when the bouncers closed the door, eyewitnesses said, keeping everyone inside.
When dance music, a popular local style called amapiano, hit the second floor, people on the ground floor climbed on top of each other to get out, breaking two windows in a room larger than 350 square feet.
Brian Mapisa, a rapper who had just finished his set on the second floor, said he could hear panting around him. He was making his way down to the exit when the door closed and the crash started. The trapped people pressed so hard against him, his legs numb.
Two men bit him when they tried to climb on him, he recalled, even six days later the semicircle of the knife in his arm was red. Mr Mapisa said the gas was shaking as soon as it touched his wound. He felt desperate, drowning on his knees.
The song only ceases when the sound of screams spreads, the survivors remember. Neon lights, brown murals jumping from rolling yellow walls, illuminated bodies scattering on the dance floor and friends unable to revive them.
Some people jumped from the second floor. Only then did the bouncers open the door alone to take some of the bodies out, several survivors said.
The window of Nalitha Khekazar’s bedroom is a few feet away from the entrance of the inn. When people jumped from the porch, they landed on his roof. The dead and injured teenagers were lying on the lawn in front of him, he said. A girl with a broken leg was lying on the floor of her dining room until 8 am
Early that Sunday morning, Mrs. Khekaja, a 55-year-old grandmother, called the police 10 times between 2:25 and 3:35, showing her call logs.
Police and ambulances finally began arriving around 4 a.m., neighbors said. As officers cordoned off the area, guardians tried to pass the tape. Some unconscious victims were still inside the inn, lying on the plaid couch or just on the dance floor – dead and injured as well.
Pictures of the scene spread on social media. This is how some parents found out that their children went out that night, but they died.
“My son was showing a tendency,” said Sidwell Rangil, the father of football goalkeeper Embulelo Rangil.
Unable to find his son at the local hospital, Mr Rangil rushed to the morgue. At first, she could not recognize her son’s body in the rows of corpses because the boy’s skin had become so black. Another victim, a 17-year-old, was similarly unidentified hours after his death, according to his friend, Shenzhen Jungo Futumni, who was in the inn.
Even grieving parents like Mr. Rangil have faced criticism for the heavy news coverage of the disaster.
“If the finger is to point, it must point to all of us,” he said. “But it’s wrong to blame us.”
The owners of the inn, Siakhangela and Vuyokaji Ndevu, have shouldered a lot of public condemnation.
The inn, which shares a wall with several private homes, has long divided the community, where residents gradually used their savings to build their homes. Neighbors complained of urine stains on their walls and empty bottles scattered outside, partying until 8am and children vomiting in their garden.
Ndevus declined to comment.
Several neighbors said they met with police and an inspector from the Eastern Cape Liquor Board just three weeks before the disaster. But both the liquor board spokesman and police say they have no record of any complaints about the inn.
The inn’s license was granted in 2012, but the Wine Board was unaware that the owner had added a second floor in recent years.
Last week, the Wine Board filed a criminal lawsuit against Vuokazi Endeavor, in whose name the license was issued, for selling alcohol to minors. Police did not say whether they would file charges against him.
Nationally, the conversation has turned into South Africa’s alcohol abuse and uncontrolled taverns, especially in the poorer, mostly black towns. According to the World Health Organization, more than half of people in South Africa do not drink alcohol, except those who complain of heavy drinking.
In Scenery Park, where drug use is on the rise, going to pubs for drinking is popular among teenagers, and is seen as less bad, says soccer coach Ludumo Salman, who started a soccer club for high school students.
“I hope this is going to be a wake-up call, because it’s a reality across South Africa,” said Esteth Sotheny, who runs a nonprofit for young people in East London townships.