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INNER-CITY DISASTER

Emergency teams race to find source of Johannesburg explosion as city centre remains volatile

Emergency teams race to find source of Johannesburg explosion as city centre remains volatile
A suspected gas line explosion left destruction in its wake tearing up Bree Street in the Central Business District of Johannesburg, South Africa on 19 July, 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

One person has been confirmed dead and 48 others are receiving medical attention after sustaining injuries following an explosion that ripped through the Johannesburg city centre.

“We heard the ground moving and thought there was another earthquake. But when we left to go check, it was very bad. The road had cracked open,  as though there was a sinkhole, cars and taxis were on top of each other, people were screaming, it was really bad.”  

This is how resident Whitney Mwendera, in a nearby flat at Lara’s Place, described the suspected Joburg gas explosion that ripped through the city on Wednesday evening while she had been going about her errands purchasing groceries at a supermarket nearby.

The blast which took place after 17:40 on Wednesday, has resulted in extensive damage and the collapse of parts of Lilian Ngoyi Street (formerly Bree Street) with 34 vehicles, mostly taxis, damaged.

Joburg gas explosion

Destruction caused by an alleged gas explosion on Bree Street in central Johannesburg on 19 July, 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Spokesperson for emergency services Robert Mulaudzi said: “in the early hours of this morning we managed to recover a body of a male person on site where the explosion occurred yesterday,” he said, also confirming the number of those injured had reached 48 overnight.         

While a gas line explosion was the suspected cause — stemming from gas lines running beneath the pavement, not under the roadway itself — such lines operate at low pressure and are unlikely to cause an explosion, according to a statement issued by Egoli Gas on Wednesday, which manages the municipal lines in the city. 

On Thursday, the company however indicated the detection of a small leak, but it said it was unlikely the cause of the explosion. 

“A small leak has been detected on the servitude pipeline at the corner of Bree and Eloff on a 100mm pipe. We believe the crack in the pipe has been caused by the collapse of the road. Our team is busy repairing the leak.”   

The firm has since been asked by authorities to check on their other pipes in the area, as a possible gas leak is still the focus of investigations.

“Egoli gas remains our centre of focus because all of us agree that the cause of this explosion agrees is gas…” said Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi who was flanked by several senior officials of the city including Executive Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda and Gauteng police commissioner Lieutenant General Elias Mawela among others.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Joburg CBD street collapses after explosion, residents instructed to leave area 

Daily Maverick has seen CCTV footage showing exactly what transpired moments before and after the blast. Initially, the footage shows several people going about their business with vendors stationed at their stalls, and commuters walking along the street. A sudden force is then seen hurling vehicles into the air, people scream and run in different directions. 

The footage is circulating widely on social media, though the source had not been determined at the time of going to press. It is not city CCTV footage, but is understood to be a business or private security. 

The entire Bree St has been closed off – likely for a protracted period.

The Johannesburg Roads Agency’s (JRA) Bertha Peters-Scheepers said the entity was aware of the explosion “possibly on the underground gas pipelines,”  adding that several streets had been cordoned off. 

They are:

  • Simmonds Street and Bree Street;
  • Harrison Street and Bree Street; and
  • Loveday Street on both sides.

Another witness, Sibongile Dlamini, a retail worker on Bree Street, said “I was at a Rea Vaya bus station, waiting for a bus going home in Soweto, when we heard a loud banging noise and people suddenly screaming, we thought a building was collapsing, but after we ran that side we realised that the road had cracked up.” 

Relieved to have survived the explosion, Dlamini expressed concern at being unable to make any income. 

“Some of us in retail get paid hourly, so this is affecting us really badly because we will not earn an income for a long time, it seems.”  

Residents in several parts of the city have been without power since the explosion, with this likely to be the case indefinitely.  

The City Power’s Isaac Mangena said: “Power supply to the businesses and residents within the inner city will remain affected until an assessment is done and a go-ahead is given by emergency services to test and switch on. We apologise for the inconvenience caused.”  

Joburg gas explosion

The aftermath of the suspected gas line explosion in Bree Street, Central Business District of Johannesburg, South Africa on 19 July, 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Safety and evacuation concerns

Meanwhile, Gwamanda assured residents that authorities had the situation under control. “We will respond to this challenge with the swiftness that it requires, and ensure that we prevent further losses of life, for me it also encourages the residents to please be compliant and refrain from going anywhere close to the scene itself,” said the mayor.  

He added that the city’s next move would be guided by a report authorities were currently working on. This amid conflicting information on whether or not residents needed to be evacuated as the smell of gas lingered.  

The report is expected to give clarity on whether or not the buildings nearby the scene are safe among other things. 

“What we have done, for now, is to ensure that the homeless people have a place that they can be redirected to so that they are out in the public.” 

Public transport is also heavily affected by the closure of Bree Street, buses have had to use alternative routes, while the national taxi alliance said it was assessing the situation and taking advice from experts.

Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the scene, police commissioner, Lieutenant General Elias Mawela said: “We are not pre-empting anything, for now we will allow specialists to do their work and give us a report. For now, we do not suspect any criminal activity, we will decide as soon as we get a report if any case(s) will be opened.”

The officials were to give an update on the latest developments, later on Thursday. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rob Martin says:

    None of the live pictures show any flames. Therefore not an gas explosion. One theory doing the rounds is that the water pipes are full of air from the recent water shut down and this pressure built up and caused the explosion. A plausible theory.

    • Ra Ma says:

      That would have ruptured in one place, and water pressure is not nearly enough to achieve that. For a whole street to be ripped up there has to be a sudden broad increase in pressure. This can only be by an explosion heating underground gases, or much less likely a sudden access of underground gases or volatile liquids to a high temperature environment or release of a high pressure reservoir.

    • David Edwards says:

      Thanks for your succinct and rational speculation Rob. While I am no expert in explosives or explosions, it definitely was a sudden release of energy and there does not appear to be any evidence of combustion. I would add that irrespective of the technical nature of the explosion, we can say with some certainty that poor maintenance is a very likely to be a major contributing factor.

    • Sean Wessels says:

      Very likely a methane gas explosion inside a well mixed air cavity underground. Or basically, methane from sewer builds up in large diameter sewer (or even stormwater) pipes. If they mix well with oxygen can cause a real energetic mix. Normally not a problem, until someone drops a heat source down there.

      Methane burns clear and does not make any smoke. The combustion would happen fully underground, so you wont see flames. Only the rapid expansion of the gas, which leads to what we saw here.

      They need to properly ventilate their sewer system to reduce the methane concentration.

  • Ivan van Heerden says:

    More genius ANC inspired “maintenance” of things is the likely cause. All budgets are directed at salaries for Comrade Cadres and very little for actually fixing things. But it’s the voting fodder that is affected and those idiots will vote the ANC back in in the ultimate expression of human stupidity so who cares? The ANC certainly do not.

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