Some 16 people, among them three children, succumbed to a toxic nitrate gas that leaked while being used by illegal miners to process gold in an informal settlement in South Africa, police and local government authorities said Wednesday.
Emergency services initially announced that as many as 24 people might be dead in the Angelo settlement in Boksburg, a city on the eastern outskirts of Johannesburg. But police and Premier Panyaza Lesufi of Gauteng province later said the number of deaths had been confirmed as 16 after a recount of the bodies.
Teams were still searching the area looking for other casualties. The bodies of the victims remained lying on the ground hours after the leak was reported as emergency services waited for forensic investigators and pathologists to arrive.
“We can’t move anybody. The bodies are still where they are on the ground,” said emergency services spokesman William Ntladi.
An official was seen covering the body of a child with a blanket. Another body could be seen covered in a white cloth with a shoe sticking out. It lay under a strip of yellow police tape cordoning off the area.
Police said the three children killed were aged 1, 6 and 15. Two people were taken to the hospital for treatment, police said.
Recall that Boksburg is the city where 41 people died after a truck carrying liquefied petroleum gas got stuck under a bridge and exploded on Christmas Eve.
Ntladi noted that Wednesday’s deaths were caused by a nitrate gas that leaked from a gas cylinder being kept in a shack. He said the canister had emptied out and teams were able to begin going over an area stretching out 100 meters (or about 100 yards) from the cylinder to check for more casualties.
Ntladi said the information authorities had indicated the cylinder that caused the leak was being used by illegal miners to separate gold from dirt and rock.
Lesufi, Gauteng’s premier, tweeted videos (shown above) of the dusty inside of a shack where at least four gas cylinders could be seen on metal stands. The video also shows what Lesufi said was the cylinder responsible for the leak lying on the floor next to the entrance of the shack.
Authorities did not say if the illegal miners they believed to be responsible for the gas leak were among the casualties.
Illegal mining is rife in the gold-rich areas around Johannesburg, where miners go into closed off and disused mines to search for any deposits left over.
Fatal incidents underground are also common. Recently the South African government agency responsible for mining announced that at least 31 illegal miners were believed to have died in a gas explosion in a disused mine in the city of Welkom, in central South Africa.
That explosion was caused by methane gas, the mining agency said.