South African community seeks answers after 21 teenagers die at tavern in unsolved tragedy

Survivors of a mysterious incident at a South African tavern that claimed the lives of 21 minors said there was a strong and suffocating odor in the building on the night of the tragedy.

Authorities said children as young as 13 were among the deaths piled up at Enyobeni Tavern in the city of East London in the Eastern Cape province on Sunday night. Some were celebrating the completion of school-leaving exams and others a birthday amid newly eased coronavirus restrictions. The lifeless bodies of the victims were found on the dance floor Sunday morning, slumped over lounge furniture.

“They died dancing,” said Police Minister Bheki Cele. “They dance, fall and die. Literally.”

Authorities are responding to 21 deaths who reportedly died at a South African tavern on June 26, 2022. (Photo: YouTube/Reuters)

“Others would just feel dizzy, sleep on the sofa, and (and) die. It tells you the story that they were all children because someone should have noticed.”

Questions remained as to what caused the deaths of the nearly two dozen patrons who were not old enough to legally drink at the tavern. Authorities ruled out initial reports of a rush. Instead, investigators suspect they may have been poisoned or died from a gas leak.

Investigators are waiting for toxicology reports.

“It’s either something they ingested, which indicates poisoning, be it food or drink, or it’s something they inhaled,” said Unathi Binqose, spokesman for the Eastern Cape Municipality’s security department. He said hookah pipes were seen on CCTV footage of the night.

Kamvelihle Matafeni, 18, went to the tavern that night to celebrate the birthdays of two popular DJs. Matafeni said she saw something thrown through the door and into the crowd, The Washington Post reports.

“I can’t breathe,” she heard her scream. “I’m choking.”

She fought her way through the crowd to the door, gasping for air.

“People were falling around me,” she said. “They died right before my eyes

Sinovuyo Monyane, 19, who was doing promotions at the bar, said she tried to escape through a door when she ran out of air, but the exit was crowded with people. She passed out and later woke up after someone sprayed water on her.

“We were trying to move through the crowd shouting ‘Please let us through’ and others shouting ‘We’re dying folks’ and ‘We’re suffocating’ and ‘There are people who can’t breathe,'” she said.

“There was a strong smell of some kind of spray in the air. We thought it was pepper spray.”

Overcome with grief and anger, members of the community are calling for the tavern to be closed. Officials revoked his license on Monday. The tavern used to have a reputation for serving minors. The legal drinking age in South Africa is 18 years.

Members of the South African community mourn the loss of 21 teenagers on Monday June 27th. (Photo: YouTube/Reuters)

“I’m so devastated. We are so angry,” Maxhabiso Sibotoboto, 50, whose 17-year-old granddaughter Monelo was among the dead, told Reuters.

A memorial service was held for one of the victims Monday at a nearby church.

“We’re so heartbroken boys. We lost one of our family members, a child who was in 12th grade [final year] this year. We cannot accept that,” said Yandiswa Ngqoza, an aunt, as she choked back tears in black at the morgue. She had just identified her niece’s body.

“From the looks of the child, she has no visible injuries,” Ngqoza said before she burst into tears. South African community seeks answers after 21 teenagers die at tavern in unsolved tragedy

Dustin Huang

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