South African authorities were seeking answers Monday, a day after 21 underage teenagers partying after the end of school exams died in a mysterious incident at a nightclub. The bodies of many of the victims, the youngest a 13-year-old girl, were discovered by police lying on tables, slumped in chairs and couches, and sprawled on the dancefloor of the club in the early hours of Sunday morning.
"They died as they danced," Police Minister Bheki Cele said. "They dance, fall, and die. Literally."
"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."
Speculation has swirled over the cause of the tragedy, starting with a stampede — that has now been ruled out — to a possible gas leak. Police have sent forensic samples from the victims to a toxicology laboratory to investigate if the teens ingested poison or a toxin at the party.
Police said they were called to the Enyobeni Tavern in the city of East London in Eastern Cape province at around 4 a.m. Sunday morning after receiving a report that there were "lifeless bodies" there. Officers responding to the call walked in on a grim scene: 17 of the teenagers were found dead in the nightclub. Two more died at a local clinic, one died on the way to another hospital and one at that hospital. Their ages were between 13 and 17, police said.
Police spokeswoman Col. Athlenda Mathe said an investigation was ongoing and no cause of death had yet been established.
But Cele said forensic samples were being sent to an advanced toxicology laboratory in Cape Town, indicating that police were looking at the possibility that poison or a toxin was involved. Cele said the toxicology tests might take "a lot of time."
Provincial safety official Unathi Binqose told the Daily Maverick newspaper that the victims may have ingested a toxic substance through alcohol they were drinking or through hookah pipes, which were being smoked at the party. Initial reports speculated that the victims — 12 boys and nine girls — may have died in a crush because of overcrowding at the party, but authorities found no visible signs of injuries on the bodies and police have now ruled that out.
The teenagers were reportedly celebrating the end of mid-year exams, a local DJ's birthday and the relaxing of some of the last COVID-19 restrictions in South Africa, which was announced earlier in the week.
Parents were asked to come to a mortuary to identify their children. The Eastern Cape health department said there were survivors being treated in the hospital for backache, tight chests, vomiting and headaches.
Police Minister Cele said the teenagers died between 2 a.m. and 4.30 a.m. Sunday morning. He had also visited the nightclub and the mortuary on Sunday and choked back tears as he spoke to reporters outside the mortuary.
"The sight of those bodies sleeping there ... when you look at their faces you realize that you're dealing with kids, kids, kids," Cele said. "You've heard the story that they are young but when you see them you realize that it's a disaster. Twenty-one of them. Too many."
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is in Germany for the G-7 summit, offered condolences to the families of the victims in a statement but also said he was concerned why "such young people were gathered at a venue which, on the face of it, should be off limits to persons under the age of 18."
It's illegal for anyone under 18 to consume or buy alcohol in South Africa and the Eastern Cape Liquor Board said it was revoking the nightclub's liquor license and would pursue criminal charges against the club's license holder. The tragedy will put renewed scrutiny on the many bars and nightclubs operating in the backstreets of poor neighborhoods in South Africa and which are often criticized for not abiding by liquor laws.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.