JOHANNESBURG - At least 17 people, including three children, have died after a gas leak at a South African slum near Johannesburg, possibly linked to illegal mining operations, emergency services said yesterday. Initially, authorities had given a toll of around two dozen deaths from the leak on Wednesday night, although it had later been revised down to 16.
Panyaza Lesufi, premier of Gauteng province which encompasses South Africa’s biggest city, said at the site of the disaster that one more person had died after being taken to hospital.
“There are five others who were later admitted this morning. There is one under oxygen... Those in the hospital, the total number is 11,” he told reporters.
Fire and emergency services received a call around 20h00 on Wednesday about a gas explosion in the Angelo slum east of Johannesburg.
But on arrival, they discovered it was “a gas leakage from a cylinder” containing a “poisonous gas”, emergency services spokesman William Ntladi said.
He said the cause of the incident “is alleged to be a nitrate oxide gas leakage from the cylinder used in an illegal mining activity in and around the settlement”.
“Apparently, the illegal miners used the gas to extrapolate gold out of the soil,” he added.
When they arrived at the scene near the middle-class suburb of Boksburg, first responders found scores of people “lying all over the area, due to inhalation of this toxic gas”, Ntladi said.
Rescue workers and forensic police combed through the affected area -- a cluster of squalid shacks built out of bricks and corrugated iron sheets -- late into the night, AFP journalists saw.
The area sits at the foot of an abandoned mine.
Neighbours gathered around a fire during the cold southern hemisphere winter, watching the stream of uniformed police officers and investigators at work.
With a dizzying unemployment rate of more than 32%, South Africa is home to thousands of illegal miners known as “zama zamas”, which means “those who try their luck” in Zulu.
Thousands of unregistered miners scavenge obsolete mines for gold under arduous and often perilous conditions.
South Africa’s commercial hub Johannesburg, and its surrounding areas, are built around mountainous dumps of soil and cavernous pits
left behind by generations of
mining companies which started extracting during a gold rush in the 1880s.
Boksburg was last month struck by a 5.0 magnitude earthquake, suspected to have been linked to the maze of underground tunnels and shafts associated with illegal mining in the area.
The same suburb was also the scene of a massive gas tanker explosion which killed 41 people on Christmas Eve last year, after a truck carrying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) got stuck under a bridge, triggering a leak and blast.
Among the victims were people and medics who had approached the scene either to help, or see the trapped truck.
Dozens at a nearby hospital, including patients and staff members, sustained serious burns after that explosion, which smashed windows and caused the roof to collapse.