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INNER-CITY DISASTER

‘I felt my intestines go cold from fear’ — Joburg residents describe blast scene chaos

‘I felt my intestines go cold from fear’ — Joburg residents describe blast scene chaos
The collapsed road on Lilian Ngoyi Street in the Johannesburg central business district on 20 July, 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

Residents and business people in Johannesburg’s inner city say they were left traumatised by Wednesday’s mystery explosion beneath a busy street.

‘I felt my intestines go cold from fear. I have never witnessed something like that before,” said Thembelani Mutunwa on Thursday.

“As pandemonium engulfed this part of the city, the first thing that came to my mind was that it was an earthquake or one of the buildings around us collapsing.”

Mutunwa, who sells sweets along Lilian Ngoyi Street – formerly Bree Street – was right there when the powerful blast ripped through the road on Wednesday afternoon.

 

He described moments of confusion where people couldn’t figure out what was happening.

“The first reaction for many was to run away from the scene, but some were also curious and they began gathering and taking pictures with their phones,” said Mutunwa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Emergency teams race to find source of Johannesburg explosion as city centre remains volatile

The explosion was initially assumed to have been caused by an underground gas leak. On Thursday, however, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi said a preliminary report suggested that issues with three underground junction boxes – enclosures housing electrical connections – might have been the cause.

“We have three possible scenarios here… we might have a gas problem, the cause might be lithium, or illegal mining activities,” said Johannesburg Emergency Services (JES) spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi.

He warned onlookers to stay away from the area.

“We are worried about the possibility of a secondary explosion and are pleading with residents to steer clear,” said Mulaudzi.

Mulaudzi said his department was yet to assess whether the structural integrity of buildings in the area had been compromised.

Tenants cautioned

Authorities said tenants in nearby blocks of flats had not been asked to evacuate, but were cautioned to keep their distance from the explosion site. 

Johannesburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda expressed concern about the homeless people living in the area, saying they would be moved to a place of safety. It wasn’t clear what arrangements had been made. 

Several residents were expecting to be evacuated, especially after JES warned there was a possibility of a secondary explosion.

“I am very happy to leave this place. Hopefully, I will now have shelter over my head,” said Gift Ndlovu, who has been living on Lilian Ngoyi Street for three years.

Ndlovu said he was waiting for the authorities to give direction on where he was to go.

Many people who live in flats along Lilian Ngoyi Street decided to remain in the area, while others removed their belongings.

Keith Mkhatshwa, a tenant in a building near the site of the explosion, said, “I do want to leave, but I cannot do that right now because I have too many belongings here. I have yet to speak to the authorities about how the evacuations will be done. I am worried about my belongings.”

Ronald Cheza felt anxious about staying at his home: “I cannot take that risk. Even last night I did not sleep here… I spent the night with friends in Berea.”

“It was scary. It was insane,” said Lethu Makhanya, who shares a flat in the area with a friend.

“I am still shaken. It will take me a while to return to that building or any building in the inner city. It’s scary. Whatever it was, it erupted from under the ground,” she said.

Priscilla Dlamini was nearby when the incident occurred.

“I came to do my hair but while busy inside, we heard the explosion and uproar,” she said.

“When I went outside to check, I discovered that my car had been squashed by two other vehicles. I am lucky not to have been inside the car at the time,” she said.

“There has been growing concern over the unknown state of the underground infrastructure, and, to be honest with, you it’s very scary.”

Businesses suffer

The impact on businesses has been significant. Joburg Water turned off at least 10 valves, affecting many in the city centre.

This comes after Joburg Water turned off the taps last week to conduct maintenance upgrades, which left many without water for days.

“Last week’s water cuts affected my cooking business. My business was affected again yesterday and now I do not know how long the recovery operations will take,” said Lungile Gule, who sells food along Lilian Ngoyi Street.

“But from what I have seen today and what the authorities are saying, my business will suffer further losses.

“I don’t know if I will come back from this. I might be forced to close down or scale down, and that would mean selling in the township where I do not have as many customers,” Gule said.

City Power also deactivated the Bree substation, further affecting local businesses. Residents said they were unable to prepare meals due to the power cuts, adding that they had been provisionally prohibited from using gas to cook.

Authorities also ordered the closure of businesses near the blast. 

A co-owner of X-Meat Express on Lilian Ngoyi Street told Daily Maverick: “Officers are not clear when this might be resolved, and we need those assurances because we are running businesses. We cannot tell our workers to come tomorrow, because there is very little information we are getting.

“We were struggling to recover from last week’s water cuts which resulted in losses for the business, and now this happens.

“If this is not resolved today or tomorrow, we will lose over a million rands of perishable goods. We have so much stock which we might have to throw away if this isn’t sorted quickly. Internet lines were also down yesterday and today,” he said.

Casualties

Premier Lesufi confirmed that there had been one fatality and several injuries.

The body of the victim was discovered trapped beneath overturned vehicles at the corner of Lillian Ngoyi and Joubert streets. His identity has not been released.

Lesufi confirmed that of the 48 people who were injured, eight remained in hospital. More than 30 vehicles, mostly minibus taxis, were damaged.

By Thursday afternoon, some people were still trying to retrieve their vehicles from the scene.

The stretch of road where the explosion occurred is an inner-city transport hub which is normally buzzing with people and traffic.

The council is likely to take weeks, if not months, to repair damage to the street and the subterranean infrastructure. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    ‘I felt my intestines go cold from fear’

    A typical reaction to the serious danger posed every day to every citizen in this country by the uselessness and stupidity that is the ANC.

  • Rama Chandra says:

    If they are blaming “illegal Lithium miners”, then they obviously have no clue. Hopefully, someone further down the chain is doing the right work, because those in their gilded offices are clearly not.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Interesting to watch the reactions to the blast captured on CCTV cameras – no one initially seemed to go to the assistance of those injured or trapped by the blast – they all ran seeking their own protection! Human behaviour at its finest!
    All those affected should learn a valuable lesson from this – place your votes carefully in the hands of those that can take charge and manage resources fairly and competently – don’t waste your vote on empty promises made by political narcissists!
    Ending BEE policies immediately will go a long way in solving this and other inefficiencies in local and National Government!

  • Paul Fanner says:

    That happened in Cape Town as well. In 1905.

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