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‘There Was a Strong Smell’: South African Community Seeks Answers After 21 Teenagers Die In Unsolved Tavern Tragedy

Survivors of a mysterious incident in a South African tavern that left 21 minors dead said there was a strong and suffocating smell in the building the night of the tragedy.

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

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

There Was a Strong Smell': South African Community Seeks Answers After 21 Teenagers Die In Unsolved Tavern Tragedy
Authorities respond to 21 deaths reportedly at a South African tavern on June 26, 2022. (Photo: YouTube/Reuters)

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

Questions remained about what caused the deaths of the nearly two dozen patrons, who were not old enough to drink in the tavern legally. Authorities ruled out initial reports of a stampede. Instead, investigators suspect they could’ve been poisoned or died from a gas leak.

Investigators are awaiting toxicology reports.

“It is either something they ingested which will point to poisoning, whether its food or drinks, or it is something they inhaled,” Unathi Binqose, spokesperson for Eastern Cape’s provincial community safety department, said. He said hookah pipes were seen on CCTV footage of the night.

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

“I can’t breathe,” she heard them yell. “I’m choking.”

She fought through the crowd to the door also struggling for air.

“People were falling around me,” she said. “They were dying right in front of my eyes.”

Sinovuyo Monyane, 19, who did promotions at the bar, said she tried to escape through a door when she felt herself running out of breath, but the exit was swamped with people. She passed out and later revived after someone sprayed water on her.

“We tried moving through the crowd, shouting ‘please let us through,’ and others were shouting ‘we are dying, guys,’ and ‘we are suffocating’ and ‘there are people who can’t breathe,'” she said.

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

Overwhelmed by grief and anger, members of the community are calling for the tavern to be shut down. Officials revoked its license on Monday. The tavern had a previous reputation for serving underage people. The legal drinking age in South Africa is 18 years old.

There Was a Strong Smell': South African Community Seeks Answers After 21 Teenagers Die In Unsolved Tavern Tragedy
South African community members grieve the loss of 21 teenagers on Monday, June 27. (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 on Monday at a neighborhood church.

“We are so heartbroken, guys. We lost one of our family members, a child who was doing grade 12 [final year] this year. We can’t accept it,” said Yandiswa Ngqoza, an aunt, as she choked back tears outside the morgue dressed in black attire. She had just identified her niece’s body.

“By the look of the child, she has no visible injuries,” Ngqoza said before breaking down in tears.

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