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South Africa fire survivor describes harrowing escape

As Tom Mandala leaned out of the fifth-floor window of his burning building in Johannesburg on Thursday morning, he felt like the only decision left to make was how to die.

He could turn and rush for the stairs, but he would surely be overwhelmed by the thick smoke and searing flames, he thought. Or he could jump out the window and end up splattered on the sidewalk below.

The second option, he believed, would be the best way to ensure that his family back in Malawi could recover his body. So after about five minutes of agonizing deliberation, Mr. Mandala, 26, jumped.

“I wasn’t thinking about anything,” he said of the moment he took off into the air.

Landing on his feet caused such sharp pain in his lower legs that tears started to flow, he said. His right ankle was broken and his left leg badly injured. But he was alive.

Mr Mandala was among the lucky survivors of a fire that killed at least 74 people and injured dozens more on Thursday, one of the deadliest residential fires in South Africa’s history. The abandoned building in downtown Johannesburg had been taken over by illegal immigrants. The landowners became a sprawling colony that was a port of last resort for hundreds of struggling South Africans and immigrants seeking a break from one of Africa’s most advanced economies.

As investigators searched through the cindered rubble on Friday, more details emerged of the chaotic and gruesome conditions inside a building that city officials said was so dangerous it should not have been occupied in first place. The building was “hijacked” by criminals who extorted money from poor workers who could not afford formal housing, officials said.

Interviews with fire survivors revealed that although the city-owned property was not a formal apartment, it operated as one, with residents paying monthly rent to people they referred to as landlords.

On Friday morning, Abdul Manyungwa, a local business owner and Malawian who has lived in South Africa for 11 years, was at the scene collecting contact details from survivors in an attempt to help them find shelter. Most were from Malawi, he said, part of a southern African country that has one of the highest poverty rates in the world, according to the World Bank. Others were South African and a few came from Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

Even though most of the residents were immigrants, the people they paid rent to seemed to be South African. Several locals described their owners as men speaking isiZulu, the native language of the Zulu people of South Africa. Rents ranged from $32 a month to nearly $100, depending on the size of their family, and this included electricity and water provided by illegal hookups.

Residents and city officials described a building that was a fire trap. There was no emergency exit or sprinklers. Rooms were subdivided with boxes and sheets, and some residents lived in dozens of tin shacks built inside the building in an open space on the ground floor.

Authorities said many victims of the fire were trapped behind a locked door, and Mr Mandala said there was such a door at the bottom of the stairwell leading to the ground floor. He didn’t have a key, so every time he wanted to leave the building, he had to wait for someone with a key to open it.

Despite the dreary conditions, he says, the building has been a blessing to him.

He moved to South Africa a year ago after failing to find work as a police officer or teacher in Malawi. He had heard of other Malawians coming to South Africa and earning enough to build nice houses, so he thought he could follow the same path.

But upon arrival, he found it equally difficult to make a living in South Africa, an economic powerhouse on the continent. He worked selling cellphone accessories, a job that earned him just over $100 a month, while paying rent of around $80 a month, leaving him little for living expenses.

Mr Mandala said he moved into the building where Thursday’s fire broke out. three months ago and shared a room there with four other Malawians. The five of them were crammed into two beds, but he only paid $32 a month.

With the reduction in rent, life was still hard but much more comfortable, he says.

That was until Thursday morning, when a roommate lying next to him jolted him awake. When he opened the door to their apartment, he was engulfed in smoke in the hallway, he said. So he broke the window and looked outside.

Only four of them were at home at the time, Mr Mandala said. He encouraged his roommates to jump out the window as well. One of them followed and he too survived. The two who did not, Mr. Mandala said, remain missing.


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