New details emerge after the mysterious deaths of 21 teenagers partying at a nightclub in South Africa: ‘I ran out of breath’

South African authorities were still looking for answers on Tuesday, two days after 21 underage teenagers celebrated after school exams ended died in a mysterious incident in a nightclub. But new details emerged as survivors spoke of a strong and suffocating odor in the cluttered two-story building.

The bodies of many of the victims, the youngest a 13-year-old girl, were discovered by police lying on tables, reclining on chairs and sofas and sprawled on the club’s dance floor in the early hours of Sunday.

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

“Others just got dizzy, slept on the sofa and (and) died. It tells you the story that they were all children because someone should have noticed.”

There has been speculation about the cause of the tragedy, ranging from a stampede – which has since been ruled out – to a possible gas leak. Police have sent forensic samples from the victims to a toxicology lab to investigate whether the teens at the party ingested poison or a toxin.

Sinovuyo Monyane, 19, who was hired by the bar to promote a brand of alcohol, said she was still “confused” but felt lucky to be alive.

She said she struggled to escape through a door jammed with people.

“We were trying to move through the crowd shouting ‘Please let us through’ and others shouting ‘We’re dying folks’ and ‘We’re suffocating’ and ‘There are people who can’t breathe,'” she told the news outlet AFP .

“I passed out at that moment. I was out of breath and there was a strong smell of some kind of spray in the air. We thought it was pepper spray,” she said.

She later regained consciousness after someone sprayed water on her.

“I got up and found bodies lying around. I saw people getting water poured on them, but those people didn’t even move,” she said in a phone interview. “I could have died.”

Forensic scientists work outside a teenage deaths tavern in East London, South Africa on June 26, 2022.

Oluthando Mthimkhulu/Xinhua via Getty Images

A bar worker, Sifiso Promise Matinise, told AFP he sprayed water on the unconscious people to revive them, thinking they were drunk, before realizing what had happened.

“I saw two people collapse, they died,” he said.

Special investigators from Pretoria were rushed to the scene but no arrests have been made so far.

“Investigators continue to look for possible clues and answers at Enyobeni Tavern,” regional police spokesman Thembinkosi Kinana said.

“Inanimate Bodies”

Police said they were called to the Enyobeni Tavern in the city of East London in the Eastern Cape province around 4am Sunday morning after receiving a report that “lifeless bodies” were there. Officials who responded to the call entered a grim scene: 17 of the teenagers were found dead at the nightclub. Two others died at a local clinic, one died on the way to another hospital and one at this hospital. The police said they were between the ages of 13 and 17.

Police spokeswoman Col. Athlenda Mathe said an investigation is ongoing and no cause of death has yet been determined.

But Cele said forensic samples are being sent to an advanced toxicology lab in Cape Town, suggesting police are investigating the possibility that poison or a toxin was involved. Cele said the toxicology tests “could take a long time.”

“The suspicion is that it’s something they ingested either through drinks, food or something they inhaled,” Unathi Binqose, a government security official, told AFP.

Provincial security official Unathi Binqose told the Daily Maverick newspaper that the victims may have ingested a toxic substance through alcohol they drank or hookahs smoked at the party. Initial reports speculated that the victims – 12 boys and nine girls – might have died in a crowd due to the party’s overcrowding, but authorities found no visible signs of injury on the bodies and police have now ruled this out.

The teenagers were reportedly celebrating the end of mid-term exams, the birthday of a local DJ and the easing of some of South Africa’s latest COVID-19 restrictions announced earlier in the week.

Parents were asked to come to a morgue to identify their children. The Eastern Cape Health Department said survivors were being treated in hospital for back pain, chest tightness, vomiting and headaches.

Police Minister Cele said the teenagers died between 2am and 4.30am on Sunday morning. He had also visited the nightclub and morgue on Sunday, fighting back tears as he spoke to reporters outside the morgue.

“The sight of those sleeping bodies … when you look at their faces, you realize you’re dealing with kids, kids, kids,” Cele said. “You’ve heard the story that you’re young, but when you see it you realize it’s a disaster. Twenty one of them. Too many.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is in Germany for the G-7 summit, issued a statement expressing condolences to the families of the victims, but also said he was concerned why “such young people were gathered in a place that was superficially considered should be prohibited to persons under the age of 18.”

It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to consume or purchase alcohol in South Africa and the Eastern Cape Liquor Board said it was revoking the nightclub’s liquor license and will pursue criminal charges against the club’s licensee. The tragedy will put another test on the many bars and nightclubs that operate on the back streets of poor neighborhoods in South Africa, which are often criticized for violating alcohol laws.

AFP contributed to this report.