South African teenagers reminisce about suffocating gas, stampede and one way out

EAST LONDON, South Africa. Before passing out among the crowd of bodies, Simbongile Mtsveni suffocated as a fire-like gas entered his nose and lungs. “When I came to,” he said, “I was on the second floor, and I started to feel sick when I realized that I was lying next to dead people.”

Hundreds of young people, attracted by a Facebook ad promising an end-of-school party with free alcohol and Wi-Fi, gathered at a small, packed tavern in East London, a city on South Africa’s south coast.

Twenty-one of them, all teenagers, would not survive the night. Witnesses, investigators – the whole nation – struggled to understand how a night of fun ended with broken and bleeding young people on the floor of a tavern called Enyobeni in the town of Scenery Park in East London.

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

A mass funeral was held on Wednesday at which President Cyril Ramaphosa warned against underage drinking and proposed raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

The funeral was broadcast live on national television as the president and cabinet ministers sat in front of 19 coffins. Two families decided to bury their children earlier.

During the mass funeral, D. Lita Matiwane, an official with the provincial health department, ruled out the possibility that the death could be related to the stampede, while acknowledging the testimony of witnesses that panicked people tried to leave the building. According to him, the cause of death is still being investigated.

Authorities also said the tavern’s liquor license would be revoked. However, in the absence of a record of why people died and no autopsy results publicly available, there were many targets for blame and anger.

The license for a hastily built tavern with two floors and only one entrance is under scrutiny, a criminal case has been opened against the couple who run it, and a DJ who performed there says that the community is “reaping” his blood. There was rampant speculation about the poisonous gas that filled the air, who released it, and whether it contributed to death, death panic, or both.

Six people who were inside the tavern, as well as others who were outside, said in an interview that a combination of mysterious gas, crowding of people and a stuffy room could be the cause of the tragedy. The victims were only 14 years old, and most of them were 18 years old.

Residents of the village are outraged that the local police answer emergency calls for hours. Outside of East London, the episode sparked a nationwide 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 lax enforcement of liquor licensing laws in townships.

The teenagers who were there that night are clearly traumatized.

Members of the high school football team were at the tavern, but the midfielder and goalkeeper never made it out. The team’s striker said he is now struggling with survivor’s guilt.

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

The entrance, a single metal door painted brown, was the center of the chaos that night. The party was supposed to end at midnight on Saturday, June 25, but outside dozens of people were still trying to get inside, according to mobile phone videos. After 00:30 it became dark in the tavern, but no one flinched – power outages in South Africa are a common thing.

But when the disco’s flashing lights returned minutes later, the ground floor was gassed, according to survivors. Some said it smelled like pepper spray, while others compared it to tear gas.

People rushed outside, and those who were outside on a cold winter night tried to get inside. According to witnesses, that’s when the bouncers closed the door, locking everyone inside.

While dance music in a popular local style called amapiano blared on the second floor, people on the first floor climbed over each other to get out, breaking the only two windows in a room no larger than 350 square feet.

Brian Mapasa, a rapper who had just finished his performance on the second floor, said he could hear everyone around him choking. He was making his way down to the exit when the door closed and a stampede began. According to him, the trapped people clung to him so tightly that his legs went numb.

He remembered that two people had bitten him when they were trying to climb over him, the semicircle of scabs on his forearms was still red six days later. mr. Mapasa said the gas tingled when it touched his wounds. He felt overwhelmed, he added, dropping to his knees.

The music only stopped when screams pierced through the pandemonium, survivors recall. Neon lights bouncing off yellow walls with swirling brown murals, glowing bodies sprawled on the dance floor, and friends unable to revive them.

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.

Nolita Kekaza’s bedroom window is a few feet from the tavern entrance. When people jumped from the balcony, they landed on its roof. According to her, on the lawn in front of her house lay dead and injured teenagers. A girl with a broken leg lay on the floor of her dining room until 7 am.

Early that Sunday morning, Miss. Chekaza, a 55-year-old grandmother, called the police 10 times between 2:25 and 3:35, her call logs show.

According to neighbors, the police and ambulance finally started arriving around 4 am. When the police cordoned off the area, the parents tried to break past the tape. Some of the unconscious victims were still in the tavern, sprawled on the leather couches or simply lying on the dance floor, dead and wounded side by side.

Footage from the scene has been circulating on social media. So some parents learned not only that their children had left that night, but also that they had died.

“My son was on trend,” said Sidwenn Rangile, father of Mbulelo Rangile, the football goalkeeper.

Unable to find his son in local hospitals, Mr. Ranjeel rushed to the morgue. At first, he did not recognize his son’s body among the rows of corpses, because the boy’s skin darkened. Another victim, a 17-year-old girl, was similarly unrecognizable hours after her death, said her friend Shinenjongo Futumani, who was also at the tavern.

Even grieving parents like Mr. Rangile faced criticism due to intense news coverage of the disaster.

“If a finger needs to be pointed, it needs to be pointed at all of us,” he said. But it’s not fair to blame us.

Tavern owners Siyakhangela and Vuyokazi Ndevu bear most of the public stigma.

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

Ndevus declined to comment.

Several neighbors said they met with police and an inspector from the Eastern Cape Liquor Board just three weeks before the crash. But representatives of the liquor department and the police said they had no record of complaints against the tavern.

The tavern’s license was issued in 2012, but the wine board was unaware that the owner had added a second floor in recent years.

Last week, the Liquor Board opened a criminal case against Vuyokazi Ndevu, in whose name the license was issued, for selling alcohol to minors. The police did not say if they would press charges against her.

At the national level, the conversation turned to the abuse of alcohol and unregulated taverns in South Africa, especially in poor, mostly black towns. More than half of South Africans do not drink alcohol, but those who report drinking according to the World Health Organization.

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

Esetu Sotheni, head of a non-profit organization for youth in the East London boroughs, said: “I hope this comes as a wake-up call because this is the reality across South Africa.”