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Survivor describes South Africa nightclub disaster: 'I can't breathe'

It was an emotional prayer service held in Scenery Park Methodist church, where Community members joined the families of 21 people who died at Nyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park in East London-Picture by BHEKI RADEBE

It was an emotional prayer service held in Scenery Park Methodist church, where Community members joined the families of 21 people who died at Nyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park in East London-Picture by BHEKI RADEBE

Published Jul 3, 2022

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Buzz about the party had been building all week. End-of-term exams were finishing at high schools in East London, and everyone was ready to cut loose. So when a local nightclub announced a birthday party for two popular DJs, the timing felt perfect to Kamvelihle Matafeni and her friends.

Dressed in her favourite skinny jeans and a white crop top, the 18-year-old arrived late Saturday night at the Enyobeni Tavern in the suburb of Scenery Park. A few days earlier, South Africa had lifted its mask mandate, marking a symbolic end to the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped this country for more than two years. Inside Enyobeni, with its sticky floors and flashing lights, the mood was raucous and joyful.

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Then, in the early morning, Matafeni said she saw something lobbed through the door and into the crowd. People around her began to scream. "I can't breathe," she heard them yell. "I'm choking." She pushed toward the door, struggling for air. "People were falling around me," she said. "They were dying right in front of my eyes."

Forensic team removing the of teens who died at Nyobeni tavern in Scenery Park township in East London. Picture by BHEKI RADEBE

Matafeni got out, but at least 21 teenagers died inside the club, according to police, setting off grief and confusion across the country. The police minister, Bheki Cele, broke down sobbing in front of an East London mortuary as he addressed media there Sunday.

"You have heard the story that they are young, but when you see them, you realize that is a disaster," he said. "When you look at their faces, you realize that we are dealing with kids. The youngest victim, he said, was 13.

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Although the cause of the deaths remains under investigation, a spokesperson for the provincial community safety department said the working theory is that it was something the teenagers ingested or inhaled, rather than the stampede that was initially suspected. Like Matafeni, other witnesses described being choked by a substance that tasted like tear gas or pepper spray.

A 17-year-old patron told Al Jazeera that when the venue became overcrowded, security instructed people to leave, to no avail. The patron stated that a security guard closed the doors and sprayed a chemical into the crowd. The patron said they were unable to breathe and that "we suffocated for a long time and [were] pushing each other but there was no use because some people were dying". The substance reportedly "smelled like gas".

Another 17-year-old recounted: "We were told to wear black and white. It was a DJ's birthday party. While we were sitting inside at around 12:00 a.m., someone sprayed pepper spray and we ran out. We didn't see who sprayed the pepper spray but we were told it was the owner and he wanted us to leave. We left and went to another place. When we came back again, the door was locked and the bouncer wouldn't let us in because it was already packed inside."

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A 19-year-old eyewitness told Agence France-Presse: "We tried moving through the crowd, shouting 'please let us through’, and others were shouting 'we are dying, guys', and 'we are suffocating' and 'there are people who can't breathe'". She then passed out, describing that "there was a strong smell of some type of spray in the air. We thought it was pepper spray."

For teenagers like Matafeni, who have spent much of the last two years in and out of school because of pandemic lockdowns, going out to party with friends was a rare chance to "let loose and be free."

"Everybody was talking about it - 'pens down' at Enyobeni," she recalled sadly.

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The provincial spokesperson, Unathi Binqose, said that autopsies were underway and that blood samples from survivors had been taken to laboratories for analysis.

Eastern Cape Community Safety MEC, Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, ruled out a stampede because "there were three young people who were coming to speak to us when we got to the scene, and they fainted along the way. One of them has since died while en-route to hospital. This means what they consumed remained in their bodies."

News reports said the investigators suspect carbon monoxide poisoning from a petrol generator that was operating in the tavern after a power outage in the area. While autopsies have not yet been completed, Solomon Zondi, the chief medical officer at the local mortuary, said the bodies showed signs of "chemical asphyxia". However, a different official in the forensic pathology services said "It is highly unlikely that the cause of death was through fumes from a generator. But we are still waiting for toxicology results."

Police said they have made no arrests in the case and, in a statement, "appealed for calm and patience" from the public as the investigation continued.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa offered his "deepest condolences" to those who had lost loved ones.

"This tragedy is made even more grave by its occurrence during Youth Month - a time during which we celebrate young people, advocate and advance opportunities for improved socio-economic conditions for the youth of our nation," Ramaphosa tweeted. - additional Wires.

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