Johannesburg fire survivors mourn friends and family killed in blaze

By Carien du Plessis

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Still in the clothes he was wearing when he jumped out of his burning building a week ago, Abdul Witman took a seat in the pews of Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Mission church on Friday to mourn the more than 70 people killed in the blaze.

The 29-year-old immigrant from Malawi said he was still waiting for the results of DNA tests to know whether the badly burnt bodies that were found in his room were those of his brother and his brother’s family, with whom he lived.

“I jumped from the fourth floor and many people jumped from there and died, but because of Allah I’m still alive. Only my hand got hurt,” he told Reuters.

Witman was one of about 100 people who attended a memorial service on Friday to honour the victims of the Aug. 31 fire in a dilapidated apartment building in downtown Johannesburg, which was one of South Africa’s worst fire disasters.

Many attendees were survivors who lost everything in the fire. They sang religious songs, some in the native Chichewa of the victims who were from Malawi. Volunteers, community workers and religious leaders also attended the ceremony.

Peace James, a 20-year-old from Malawi, was at work when the fire broke out in the building where she lived with her parents. She was told her father jumped out a window and was taken to hospital with two broken legs, but she hasn’t been able to locate him yet. She thinks her mother has died.

“Up to this moment I don’t know where my parents are,” James told the congregation as she broke down in tears and was led away by ministers for counselling and comfort.

The tragedy has highlighted a housing crisis in a city that is one of the world’s most unequal, and where poverty and unemployment are widespread.

The Central Methodist Mission, about 1 kilometre from the burnt building, was once a refuge for vulnerable people, sheltering hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers from countries in Southern Africa.

It closed its doors as a shelter in 2015 as it became increasingly dilapidated and unsuitable for the large numbers of people living inside.

(Writing by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Ros Russell)