Gaseous explosion probably caused death of 21 young people at Eastern Cape tavern, pathology expert says

A gaseous explosion on the ground floor of the Enyobeni tavern which resulted in chemical asphyxiation, was probably the cause of the death of 21 young people in the early hours of Sunday morning, a government pathology expert has said.

Dr Solomon Zondi did not rule out the possibility that the deadly substance could have been swallowed in drinks provided to patrons in the tavern. But he suggested that a gaseous substance was released in the enclosed downstairs area – “this is where the pandemonium started” – and that people who were closer to the release epicentre were most affected.

Zondi said videos he had seen gave no indication of a teargas canister explosion, but people could be seen complaining of respiratory symptoms. During the post-mortem examinations on the deceased, Zondo said he was cautious not to inhale any odour emanating from any of the bodies. At one stage his heart started racing as he examined a body.

“I was becoming dizzy and had to stop for a while,” he told the Mail & Guardian. “The children died of poisoning – the question now is whether it was inhaled or ingested.”

Zondi spoke at the Woodbrook, East London, mortuary and pathology facility where the bodies of the deceased were taken after Sunday’s horror incident.

He said it would be a few weeks before a final determination was made on the cause of death. The toxicology testing processes in the government laboratory in Cape Town – which could determine what substance was implicated in the deaths – would take at least a week or two.

“For us, toxicology is the most important thing,” he said. The pathology unit was alerted early on Sunday morning to the tragedy which had played itself out on the two floors of the tavern, stuck in an awkward corner of a densely populated part of Scenery Park.

The pathologists worked with police to meticulously document the scene, the state of the bodies, the respective anatomical positions in which they were lying and any injuries that had occurred on the scene.

The bodies of the 18 youths who died on the scene were strewn around the building – some on the ground floor, where the incident started, and others on the top floor. Some of the bodies had light injuries – for example, on the face – from how a victim had collapsed on the spot.

“The bodies that were discovered on the top floor were picked up by bouncers [to get them to] proper ventilation. At the top there are windows, so the ventilation is better. Also, people were blocking the door [downstairs],” Zondi said.

“We also checked for rigor mortis to determine the time of death for each one of them.”

Later on Sunday, Zondi and two pathology colleagues started the difficult task of conducting autopsies on the deceased, including stomach content examinations. These showed the stomach contents were not uniform, suggesting that the deceased did not eat the same food – “but we do not know in terms of the drinks.

“Some ate chicken wings, chicken feet, some ate rice, some ate carbohydrate meals, some it was just pure alcohol – you could smell it.”

Zondi said he confirmed with colleagues at the forensic laboratory in Cape Town on Tuesday morning that the toxicology specimens had been received. While previous news reports have pointed to delays in obtaining forensic reports from government laboratories, Zondi said “this one will be quick.

“I can assure all South Africans that everyone is taking this thing very seriously. This is a methodical investigation of a disaster. We want to know everything that happened. We are working with the police. We are not working in silos, there is coordination and cooperation.

“We [the pathologists] are the ones who will give the final, final report.”

While pathology could determine the cause of death, it was for the South African Police Service to determine the circumstances of death.

Zondi confirmed that investigators had ruled out a stampede as occurring in the venue. Instead, he said, the possibility should be investigated that a mist machine or a similar apparatus was used in the nightclub.

While he had experience of attending at the scene of last year’s horrific bus accident in the Kei cuttings, Zondi said Sunday’s incident was “all the more terrible because of the kids involved”.

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