Authorities are investigating the deaths of at least 22 young people in a tavern in the city of East London, South Africa. At about 4 am on Sunday morning, locals reported the deaths of patrons at the Enyobeni Tavern, one of whom is reported to be 13 years old.
The victims – all under the age of 17, according to police minister Bheki Cele – were celebrating the end of school exams when the as yet unexplained incident took place.
The nightclub had become overcrowded at around 1 am, the tavern's owner Siyakhangela Ndevu told AFP. However, Unathi Binqose, a government safety official who attended the scene early the following morning, told the organization that a stampede had been ruled out as there were "no visible open wounds" on the victims.
Local newspaper Dispatch Live reported that when they attended the scene, they found "bodies lying bizarrely, as if they collapsed to the floor suddenly while dancing or in the middle of a conversation".
Investigations into the cause of death are currently being undertaken by forensic teams, including testing the bodies for potential poisons, Binqose told AFP.
One witness to the incident – a young woman who snuck out after her parents went to sleep, in order to go to the club – told Al Jazeera that people felt as if they were suffocating.
“The man at the door, I think he was a bouncer, he closed the door and we couldn’t breathe. We suffocated for a long time and [were] pushing each other but there was no use because some people were dying," she said, adding that the place smelled like some sort of gas – "I’m not sure if it was tear gas or pepper spray," she said.
"Then some people died and I also fell asleep for three hours. Then when they woke us up, they also thought I was dead."
Police are appealing for any information into what happened to the underage patrons of the club.
"We have an experienced team that is complementing the provincial team to ensure that we get to the bottom of what has led to the death of these young people," the Minister of Police, General Bheki Cele, said in a statement on Sunday. "We are also engaging other stakeholders to investigate issues of compliance to liquor legislation."
Investigations into the deaths continue.