South African authorities are investigating after at least 21 young people were found dead in a tavern early Sunday in the coastal city of East London.
Investigators are still trying to piece together what happened in the Enyobeni Tavern, but initial reports suggested the club had been overcrowded and there had been a stampede, Unathi Binqose, the spokesperson for the Department of Community Safety in Eastern Cape Province, told The New York Times.
However, a provincial safety official told AFP news agency that a stampede had been ruled out as the cause of death because there were “no visible wounds,” the BBC reported.
Update 2:47 p.m. EDT June 26: Bheki Cele, the country’s national police minister, said nine girls and 12 boys died at the tavern, The New York Times reported.
“It’s a scary thing,” Cele told reporters as he stood outside the mortuary where the bodies were being examined. “I got inside but could not go any further to where they were opening up the bodies.”
The Daily Dispatch reported that bodies were scattered across tables and chairs.
“Forensic (investigators) will take samples and test to see if there was any poisoning of any sort,” Binqose told reporters.
Police told reporters most of those found dead were between the ages of 18 and 20, the BBC reported.
“We really cannot understand what has happened here,” Oscar Mabuyane, the premier of the Eastern Cape, told reporters. “It just can’t be. It should not happen like this.”
Brig. Tembinkosi Kinana, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape police, said his department received a call about 4 a.m. local time reporting deaths at the tavern.
Binqose said the tavern had hosted a large party on Saturday night, featuring two DJs who were celebrating their birthdays, according to the BBC. The party was also billed as a celebration of South Africa dropping its mask mandate for public places, which had been in effect since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Binqose told reporters.
The owner of the club, Siyakhangela Ndevu, told local broadcaster eNCA that he had been called to the tavern early Sunday, according to The Associated Press.
“I am still uncertain about what really happened, but when I was called in the morning I was told the place was too full and that some people were trying to force their way into the tavern,” Ndevu said. “However, we will hear what the police say about the cause of death.”
The bodies will be taken to state mortuaries where relatives will help to identify them, CNN reported, citing Siyanda Manana, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape provincial health department.
“We are going to immediately be embarking on autopsies so we can know the probable cause of death,” Manana told Reuters.
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