The death toll from a toxic gas leak that authorities blamed on an illegal gold processing operation in South Africa rose to 17, including three children, as police removed canisters from a community of closely packed shacks and sifted through evidence Thursday.
The leak of what authorities said was a toxic nitrate gas happened Wednesday night in the informal Angelo settlement in Boksburg, a city on the eastern outskirts of Johannesburg.
The three children who died were ages 1, 6 and 15, police said. At least 10 people were hospitalized, including a 2-month-old baby, two 4 year olds and a 9 year old, according to Panyaza Lesufi, the premier of Gauteng province, who gave an update Thursday.
A statement from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office said it was a “devastating and tragic loss of innocent lives.”
Bodies remained on the ground, some of them covered in sheets or blankets, for hours after the gas leak was reported around 8 p.m. Wednesday as emergency service responders waited for forensic investigators and pathologists to do their work.
“It’s not a nice scene at all. … It’s painful, emotionally draining and tragic,” Lesufi was quoted as saying in news reports as he visited the settlement on Wednesday night.
An Associated Press journalist saw a forensic investigator covering the body of a small child with a blanket. Another body, covered in a white cloth with a shoe sticking out, lay under a strip of yellow police tape cordoning off the area. The bodies eventually were removed.
Search teams combed the area deep into the night looking for other possible casualties. Authorities didn’t say if the people engaged in the illegal gold processing thought to have caused the gas leak were among the dead, but police opened a criminal case.
Investigators made their way through narrow alleys between shacks and other makeshift homes that were dark due to a lack of streetlights, a common situation in the deeply impoverished informal settlements found in and around South Africa’s cities.
Emergency services spokesman William Ntladi said the deaths were caused by the inhalation of nitrate gas that leaked from a gas cylinder being kept in a shack where illegal miners were separating gold from rock and dirt. He said the leak had emptied the canister.
Lesufi, the Gauteng premier, tweeted videos that showed the dusty inside of the shack and at least four gas cylinders on metal stands. The footage included what Lesufi said was the cylinder that leaked lying on the floor next to the shack’s entrance.
The search teams concentrated on an area stretching out 100 meters (yards) from the cylinder to check for more dead or injured people, Ntaldi said.
Police later began tearing down the shack, and Lesufi said all gas cylinders were removed from the site.
Illegal mining is rife in the gold-rich areas around Johannesburg, where miners go into closed off and disused mines to search for any deposits left over. They then attempt to process some of that gold in secret, often in makeshift and highly dangerous facilities.
Mining fatalities underground are also common and the South African government department responsible for mining announced recently that at least 31 illegal miners were believed to have died in a gas explosion in a disused mine in the city of Welkom in central South Africa in May. The cause was methane gas, the mining department said.
Wednesday’s tragedy was likely to stoke more anger at illegal miners, who are often migrants from neighboring countries, operate in organized gangs and are blamed for bringing crime into neighborhoods.
Violence against illegal miners erupted last year and raged for days in an area west of Johannesburg after a group of 80 men, some of whom were believed to be illegal miners, were charged with gang raping eight women who were working on a TV shoot at a disused mine.
Boksburg is the city where 41 people died after a truck carrying liquefied petroleum gas got stuck under a bridge and exploded on Christmas Eve.