South African teens recall choking gas, a stampede and an outing

EAST LONDON, South Africa — Before passing out amid the crushing of bodies, Simbongile Mtsweni gasped as gas that looked like fire crept into his nose and lungs. “When I came to,” he said, “I was on the second floor and started throwing up when I realized I was lying next to dead people.”

Hundreds of young people, lured by a notice on Facebook promising an end-of-school-term party with free booze and Wi-Fi, had gathered at a crowded little tavern in East London, a city on the south coast of the South Africa.

Twenty-one of them, all teenagers, would not make it through the night. A mass funeral, with President Cyril Ramaphosa about to speak, takes place on Wednesday.

Witnesses, investigators – across the nation – are struggling to understand how a night of revelry turned into a deadly stampede, leaving broken and bloodied youths on the floors of Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park township in East London.

“We came for fun, not for dead bodies,” said Lubabalo Dongeni, an 18-year-old high school student, who was still limping five days after the incident.

Authorities have not explained why the people died or released autopsy results, but the public and authorities have found plenty of targets for blame and anger. The license granted to the hastily built tavern with two floors and a single entrance is under scrutiny, the couple who run it are under criminal investigation and a DJ who performed there said the community “abie” for his blood. There has been rampant speculation about what 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 tavern, as well as others who were outside, said in interviews that the combination of the mysterious gas, the crushing of people and a room without air could have caused tragedy.

Township residents are furious with local police for taking hours to respond to 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 to other systemic failures, from the location and construction of the tavern to the lax enforcement of liquor licensing laws in the townships.

The dead were only 14 years old and most were under 18. The legal age to enter a bar and have a drink in South Africa is 18.

The teenagers who were there that night are visibly traumatized.

Members of a high school boys’ soccer team were in the tavern, but a midfielder and the goalie never came out. The team striker said he is now struggling with survivor’s guilt.

A 19-year-old blames herself for helping her 17-year-old friend into the party, where she died. When a group of teenagers recently visited the tavern to lay white plastic roses at the entrance, they were overwhelmed with emotion.

The entrance, a single brown-painted metal door, was the center of chaos that night. The party was due to end at midnight on Saturday June 25, but outside dozens of people were still trying to get inside, according to cellphone videos. After 12:30 p.m. the tavern went dark, but no one flinched – blackouts are common in South Africa.

But when the flashing disco lights came back minutes later, gas shot through the ground floor, survivors said. Some said it smelled like pepper spray, while others compared it to tear gas.

People rushed out, while those outside in the cold winter night tried to enter. That’s when the bouncers closed the door, witnesses said, trapping everyone inside.

As dance music, a popular local style called amapiano, echoed on the second floor, people on the ground floor jumped out, smashing the only two windows in a room no larger than 350 square feet.

Brian Mapasa, a rapper who had just finished his set on the second floor, said he could hear gasps all around him. He was walking down the exit when the door closed and the crush began. The trapped people pressed so hard against him that his legs went numb.

Two people bit him as they tried to climb on top of him, he recalled, the half-circle of scabs on his forearms still red six days later. Mr Mapasa said the gas tingled on contact with his wounds. He felt groggy, falling to his knees.

The music only stopped when screams broke through the pandemonium, survivors remember. The neon lights, bouncing off the yellow walls with swirling brown murals, illuminated bodies sprawled on the dance floor, and the friends unable to bring them to life.

Some people jumped from the second floor. Only then did the bouncers open the only door, to carry some of the bodies outside, several survivors said.

Nolitha Qhekaza’s bedroom window is a few meters from the entrance to the tavern. When people jumped from the balcony, they landed on its roof. Dead and injured teenagers lay on her lawn, she said. A girl with a broken leg lay on her dining room floor until 7am

In the early hours of that Sunday morning, Ms Qhekaza, a 55-year-old grandmother, called the police 10 times between 2:25 a.m. and 3:35 a.m., according to her call logs.

Police and ambulances finally started arriving around 4 a.m., neighbors said. As officers cordoned off the area, the parents attempted to overtake the gang. Some of the unconscious victims were still inside the tavern, sprawled on leather sofas or just lying on the dance floor – the dead and the injured side by side.

Images of the scene circulated on social media. This is how some parents learned not only that their children had gone out that evening, but that they had died.

“My son was fashionable,” said Sidwenn Rangile, father of Mbulelo Rangile, the football team’s goalkeeper.

Unable to find his son in local hospitals, Mr Rangile rushed to the morgue. At first, he didn’t recognize his son’s body among the rows of corpses because the boy’s skin had turned so dark. Another victim, 17, was also unrecognizable just hours after his death, said his friend, Sinenjongo Phuthumani, who was also at the tavern.

Even grieving parents like Mr Rangile have faced criticism in the heavy media coverage of the disaster.

“If the finger is to be pointed, it should be pointed at all of us,” he said. “But it’s unfair to blame us.”

The tavern owners, Siyakchangela and Vuyokazi Ndevu, have faced much of the public condemnation.

The tavern, which shares a wall with several private homes, has long divided this community, where residents have used their savings to slowly build their homes. Neighbors had complained of urine stains along their walls and empty bottles strewn outside, parties lasting until 8 a.m. and children vomiting in their gardens.

The Ndevus declined to comment.

Several neighbors said they met police and an inspector from the Eastern Cape Liquor Board just three weeks before the disaster. But spokespersons for the liquor board and the police said they had no record of complaints about the tavern.

The tavern’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 complaint against Vuyokazi Ndevu, in whose name the license was granted, for selling alcohol to minors. Police have not said whether they will press charges against her.

Nationally, the conversation turned to alcohol abuse and unregulated taverns in South Africa, particularly in the poor, mostly black townships. According to the World Health Organization, more than half of South Africans do not drink alcohol, but those who do report heavy drinking.

In Scenery Park, where drug use is on the rise, going to a tavern to drink is popular among teenagers and considered the lesser evil, said soccer coach Ludumo Salman, who started the high school soccer club.

“I hope this is going to be a wake-up call because it is a reality all over South Africa,” said Esethu Sotheni, who runs a non-profit organization for young people in the townships of South Africa. East London.

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