Johannesburg - Four fires have broken out over the past four years in the building in the Joburg CBD that was engulfed in flames on Wednesday, leaving seven people dead.
The inferno in the derelict building, said to be occupied by sex workers and drug users, claimed the lives of four people, including a one-year-old child.
Firefighters also recovered the bodies of the other occupants, who succumbed to smoke inhalation and were declared dead on the scene.
Another seven were rushed to Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, suffering from severe smoke inhalation and burn injuries.
Eyewitnesses said a fight over a room in the hijacked building had led to the deadly blaze.
But it wasn't the first incident of a fatal fire at the hijacked Cape York Building on the corner of Nugget and Jeppe streets.
Renney Plit, chairperson of the Africa Housing Company (Afhco), was angered by the loss of life in the inferno. Plit filed a R4 million damages claim against the then owners, Banco de Mozambique and the City of Joburg, to cover his company's losses.
He further demanded that Banco de Mozambique and the City of Joburg clean up the building, as it had become a den of iniquity.
Afhco spokesperson Kevin van den Heever said his organisation had been entangled in legal battles with the stakeholders of the building. “It’s worse than a few years ago. I have been fighting a legal battle for the past three years,” he said, adding that little had been done to rectify the problem.
The hijacked building, now owned by a company called Mark of the Divine, which could not be traced, is in a bad state. The infrastructure is crumbling, it is overcrowded and lacks sanitation.
The nine-storey building, notorious for drug-trafficking, has been a great cause for concern for Afhco.
Van den Heever said that a year ago, a woman’s body was found among the refuse in the alley.
It has also caught the attention of Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, who visited hijacked buildings last week, including Cape York. Although Cape York has been raided in recent years, little seems to have changed.
A resident claimed Wednesday's fire was an act of arson by an individual out of spite for not getting a room.
Joburg Emergency Services spokesperson Nana Radebe said the cause was still unknown and was being investigated. She did, however, say the fire was started on the second floor, where most of the damage occurred.
Although the fire was contained on the second floor, billowing smoke rapidly spread throughout the building. In the hope of escaping the flames, one of the building’s occupants jumped to their death from the seventh floor.
Radebe said the fire department rescued more than 40 residents from the building.
Business owners along Jeppe and Nugget streets said they heard screaming and shouting coming from the Cape York building.
In the ensuing panic, they saw flames pour out of the building’s windows and residents desperately trying to flee the burning building. Some used bedsheets and blankets to climb out of the broken windows.
Later, residents were seen going back because they did not have alternative accommodation.