Johannesburg migrants
Dozens of people have died in a fire in Johannesburg after a locked gate stopped people from fleeing the building. STAFF/Reuters

At least 74 people have died in a fire that engulfed a multi-storey building in South Africa's biggest city, Johannesburg.

The building, which was gutted by the blaze this morning (Thursday 31 August), was being used to house homeless migrants from neighbouring countries.

More than 80 shacks had been set up by families inside. The death toll includes seven children, with the youngest victim being just 12 months old. In addition, a further 52 people have been injured – according to emergency services in the area.

Emergency services also revealed that there were deceased bodies piled up at a locked gate that had prevented the victims from fleeing the burning building.

Witnesses recalled people throwing themselves out of windows to escape the flames.

Omar Arafat, a Malawian resident of the building, said that he was woken up at around 1 a.m. by loud bangs and screams of "fire, fire".

He was amongst those who jumped out of his window to escape.

Mr Arafat explained: "I was out [of consciousness] for three hours. When I got up, I thought: Where is my sister?"

Mr Arafat's sister is yet to be accounted for. Her two-year-old daughter was thrown out of a window and caught by people on the ground.

Thankfully, the toddler is safe and being cared for by other family members.

More than 70 people have died after a fire engulfed a multi-storey building in South Africa's biggest city, Johannesburg.

Mgcini Tshwaku, a member of the Mayoral Committee for Safety and Security said that "a lot of partitions and gates in between" attributed to the high death toll in the building.

"Many people wanted to get out but they could not... Many burnt bodies were actually found stashed on that gate on the bottom-level floor", he added.

Johannesburg's mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said in a statement after seeing the aftermath of the fire, that he extends his condolences to the families of those who have died.

Mr Gwamanda noted that "we share the pain of those that have suffered grave injury", before declaring to the public that the local authorities "truly understand the gravity of the situation that has befallen our city".

There is currently an investigation taking place, in regard to finding out how the deadly fire started.

In his statement, the Mayor added that the government must take serious measures to "ensure that we do not experience the same situation again", and that the series of tragedies and disasters in Johannesburg "ends today".

It is increasingly common in Johannesburg, for abandoned and unsafe buildings to be illegally occupied by those in need.

In October 2019 the same building was raided by a number of foreign nationals who were later arrested and charged for illegally collecting rent from tenants who have fled surrounding areas.

The matter was handed over to the police.

Despite the history of illegal tenancy fees, officials revealed today that some of the victims may have been renting rooms in the building from criminal gangs.

Witnesses said that more than 200 people have been living in the building, with emergency services expecting to find more victims as they worked their way into the building.

The fire took three hours to contain. Within that time, firefighters had only been able to work their way through three of the building's five floors by mid-morning.

Authorities continue to search the building for missing persons.

Dozens of bodies, some in body bags, have since been pulled out of the gutted building and now line the streets of Johannesburg. The remaining bodies have respectfully been covered with silver sheets and blankets.

Non-governmental organisations and other private building owners have also stepped in to assist with the disaster.

Robert Mulaudzi, a spokesperson for Johannesburg Emergency Services Management, explained: "This is a tragedy for Johannesburg. Over 20 years in the service, I've never come across something like this."

The most recent update from emergency services claims that exactly 73 bodies have been found in the building.

A representative for the emergency services also told reporters that the authorities are currently combing through the building, from the basement up to the top floor, expecting to find more victims.

The search team are also being accompanied by a structural engineer, considering the damage to the building.