The bodies of 22 youths, who died with no apparent injuries, were discovered Sunday at an informal nightclub in a township in East London, South Africa, according to local police investigating the cause of the mass deaths.
The victims were discovered in the early hours of the morning at a makeshift bar in East London’s Scenery Park community, an AFP correspondent noted.
“We continue to investigate the circumstances of these deaths,” provincial police spokesman Gen. Thembinkosi Kinana told AFP.
The victims are between 18 and 20 years old, the police officer added, without risking a death hypothesis.
An initial number of 17 fatalities had been announced by the police spokesman, but in the morning the number rose to 22 dead.
“Three of the injured died in hospital and two remain in very critical condition,” Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, head of the provincial government’s security service, told local television.
A provincial health service official, Unathi Binqose, ruled out the possibility of a stampede or mass movement.
“It’s hard to believe there was a stampede because neither victim has visible open wounds,” he told AFP by phone from the scene.
The victims, he said, were likely high school students celebrating the end of exams and the end of the school year.
According to local newspaper DispatchLive, “the bodies are strewn across tables, chairs and on the floor” “with no obvious signs of injury.”
On social networks, some mentioned the possibility of gas poisoning or collective poisoning. Unauthenticated footage showed bodies lying on the ground with no visible injuries.
Local TV channels broadcast images of the crowds of families and spectators gathered around this bar in East London, a city of one million on the Indian Ocean some 700km south of Johannesburg.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s unbelievable to lose twenty young people in this way,” said the head of government of the Eastern Cape province Oscar Mabuyane, who came to the scene of the tragedy in the morning, a simple building surrounded by individual houses.
Many parents whose children were staying away from home came to the news hoping not to spot them among the victims, police said, trying to calm the onlookers.
Many informal pubs – nicknamed “shebeens” or “taverns” – are licensed or tolerated in the townships of major South African cities, those disadvantaged neighborhoods that were once reserved for non-whites before the end of apartheid.