New details have emerged in the mysterious deaths of nearly two dozen mostly under-aged patrons in a South African bar.
Methanol, a toxic form of alcohol used as a pesticide or fuel, has been linked to the deaths of 21 people who gathered at the Enyobeni Tavern in Eastern Cape last month, according to reports. The chemical, which is also used as a solvent, was found in all of the victims’ bodies. Investigators must now determine whether it was enough to kill them.
“Methanol has been detected in all the 21 individuals that were there however, there is still progressive analysis of the quantitative levels of methanol and whether it could have been the final cause of death,” Dr. Litha Matiwane, Eastern Cape provincial deputy director for clinical service, said at July 19 press conference.
Children 13 to 17 years old were among the dead reported after the June 26 gathering at the bar popular among young South Africans. Many patrons were celebrating the completion of end-of-year exams, and others were there to attend a birthday party for a well-known disc jockey.
“The venue was packed. Entrance was free … and free alcohol was also being dished out. We started drinking and having fun with others,” a 16-year-old girl who did not want to be named previously told the BBC. “They were dropping like flies.”
Some survivors said they noticed a distinct smell. Kamvelihle Matafeni said she saw something thrown through the door and into the crowd, and many in the packed tavern struggled to breathe as a thickness filled the room. Unverified images on social media show bodies on the ground and slumped over bar furniture.
“People were falling around me,” she said. “They were dying right in front of my eyes.”
Matiwane said alcohol poisoning and carbon monoxide inhalation had been ruled out as possible causes of death. However, traces of both were still detected in the bodies of all the victims.
“The first way [methanol] gets into the body is to ingest it. But it is a byproduct from other chemicals, so it could have been something else. Hence we say we are investigating,” Matiwane said.
Witnesses also said some of the patrons were smoking hookahs.
The tavern’s owner and some employees are out on bail for selling alcohol to underage patrons. The legal drinking age in South Africa is 18 years old. National police minister Bheki Cele said additional arrests or charges depend on the findings in the final toxicology reports.
Reports show that there have been a number of fatal cases in the Eastern Cape of methanol poisoning caused by illegal homemade alcohol in the past two years. Seven people in the Western Cape died of methanol poisoning after drinking home-brewed alcohol in June 2020.
The South African government issued a warning about methanol-spiked beverages in 2016.
“The production of illegal liquor is a multifaceted problem and is also influenced by efforts to evade excise duties on alcoholic beverages. In such cases, licensed or unlicensed manufacturers use cheaper spirits to produce illegal variants of other categories of spirits and the use of industrial alcohol (methanol or ethanol) to produce cheap spirits,” the document stated.
“The easy availability of cheap industrial alcohol, and the lacuna that currently exists in the context of ales, appears to further facilitate the illicit market.”