Enyobeni Tavern. Photo: Oluthando Mthimkhulu/Xinhua via Getty Images
The families of the teenagers who were found dead in the early hours of Sunday morning in a South African nightclub are still waiting to find out how their loved ones died and why so many underage young people were allowed into the venue.
The victims, aged between 13-17, had been celebrating the end of their exams and were discovered by police at around 4AM in Enyobeni Tavern in East London, a town in the south of the country. Their bodies, which were sprawled across tables and across the dancefloor, had no visible physical wounds.
Multiple theories of how at least 21 teenagers died have emerged in the days since. Initial reports suggested the teens died in a crush as partygoers tried to force their way into the already full venue. But authorities quickly ruled out that theory after they examined the bodies for injuries and found none.
The police are waiting for results of toxicology reports to see whether the students were poisoned.
Dr Solomon Zondi, the government pathology expert responsible for carrying out the autopsies, believes the most likely cause of the deaths is a gas blast that led to chemical asphyxiation.
Dr Zondi has also viewed security footage from that night that appears to show people saying they were struggling to breathe.
“The children died of poisoning,” Dr Zondi told local media. “The question is whether it was inhaled or ingested.”
Authorities are also investigating whether the use of an indoor petrol generator may have caused carbon monoxide to be released into the packed venue. Witnesses claim that power had gone off that evening but it’s not clear whether the generator was ever turned on.
One eyewitness says she heard people screaming “I can’t breathe” as attendees scrambled to leave the club. “People were falling around me,” Kamvelihle Matafeni, 18, told the Washington Post. “They were dying right in front of my eyes.”
The owner of the venue, Siyakhangela Ndevu, has apologised to the families and promised to fully cooperate with the official investigation.
Families have been told that it could take a few weeks before an official cause of death is announced as authorities work to unravel the facts.
“I can assure all South Africans that everyone is taking this thing very seriously,” Dr. Zondi said. “This is a methodical investigation of a disaster. We want to know everything that happened.”