South African fire kills 11 workers locked in factory


JOHANNESBURG, Reuters

Ten women and a man burned to death after an explosion in a Johannesburg factory early on Saturday with police saying they were investigating allegations that the night-shift workers were locked in. “Witnesses are saying they came from a nightclub that is near here and that they could hear the people screaming, but they could not get in because the gates and the doors were locked,” said Superintendent Richard Luvhengo. He said a preliminary investigation by forensic experts suggested dangerous chemicals had been stored illegally inside the Esschem floor-polish factory in Lenasia, a suburb south of Johannesburg. “The owner is here, but he is not talking to us. His lawyer has told him to stay silent. “But you can see that the people went to try to hide inside the factory and did not try to break open the door. This suggests also that they knew they were locked in and could not get out,” Luvhengo said. Firemen had to cut locks on the outer security fence of the factory and entered the building through a hole apparently blown in the wall. The main entrance was still padlocked on Saturday. Margaret Washington, who failed to report for the night shift because of a pain from an old burn wound, told Reuters some of her best friends died in the fire. “I pray to God to save my life because I am supposed to be dead now,” she said, adding that she had worked for 175 rand (US$23.30) a fortnight. Witnesses on the scene said the owner routinely locked nightshift workers into the factory in the evening and released them in the morning when the day shift arrived. “We are investigating a charge of culpable homicide if the fire started by accident and of murder if the fire was deliberate,” said Luvhengo. He said the owner had given police 11 first names — 10 women and a male supervisor — of people believed to have been in the factory. But by midday police and firemen had been able to find only seven bodies, some barely recognizable as human remains. Officials on the scene said others probably died under piles of brick and debris left by the explosion of gas bottles inside the factory. “The fire brigade put out the fire early today, but it was too dark to start looking for the bodies of the victims. We came back to it at seven this morning,” he said.