JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Eighteen elderly people died after a fire swept through their old age and frail care center outside of Johannesburg, South African emergency services said Monday, as investigators began digging through the rubble to determine the cause of the fire.
Paramedics said another 84 people were rescued from the Pieter Wessels old age home about 40 miles (60 kilometers) southeast of Johannesburg.
One of the victims died from a heart attack after being evacuated to a nearby church. The fire broke out late Sunday.
The Netcare rescue agency said Monday that 17 bodies were recovered from razed buildings at the home.
Three of the survivors were hospitalized for burn treatment. Most of the others had suffered from smoke inhalation.
Family members who gathered outside the home Monday said survivors, many of them disabled and in wheelchairs, were rescued in their pajamas and lost their clothing and belongings.
Zweli Dlamini, a district official, said DNA tests were needed to identify some of the victims who were burned beyond recognition.
“Looking at the damage, it will probably take a number of days,” to conduct the investigation, he said.
The regional health department began transporting survivors to another frail care home and other facilities nearby and appealed for donations of food and clothes.
Counseling services were also being offered to the survivors and the families those who died, the department said.
Remsie Visser, a spokeswoman for the home, said firefighters brought the fire under control in the early hours of Monday, the South African Press Association reported.
“The entire building was up in flames. We called the fire brigade and just tried to get the people out. Most of them are disabled. We couldn’t get everyone out. We are in a terrible state of shock,” Visser said.
South Africa’s Social Minister Edna Molewa sent a message of condolence to the families and friends of the deceased.
“It is shocking that these old persons lost their lives defenselessly under such circumstances,” she said in a statement.