‘I saw my friends drop like flies’

East London youth activist Sinenjongo Phuthumani said her narrow escape from the tavern of death has taught her that there’s more to life than fun after her night of joy turned into a nightmare. She helplessly watched some of her friends she was partying with at the ill-fated Enyobeni tavern in East London drop like flies.

The 19-year-old Phuthumani is among those who survived the pandemonium during which 21 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 died in the early hours of last Sunday.

She lived to tell the story of her miraculous escape from what is believed to be a gas leak that caused the teens to allegedly choke to death. Police are still piecing together the evidence.

According to some of the survivors,  there were various “pens down” celebrations for pupils,  who were communicating with each other. Because it was easy to slip into Enyobeni regardless of age, the tavern became the place to be.

But their celebrations turned into a nightmare as they watched some of the patrons suddenly collapsing.

At first bouncers took those who had collapsed upstairs to an area  reserved exclusively for those who had dressed according to the  party theme.

Phuthumani was among those who were  in the VIP area. She said her struggle began when it suddenly became very difficult to get back upstairs after using the downstairs bathrooms.

“The place was overcrowded. Someone grabbed my braids and pulled them, but I realised people were trying to maintain their balance,” she said.

She still doesn’t know how she made it out through the crowd after struggling to breathe.

“I don’t remember smelling anything unusual except inhaling the heat. The place was extremely hot, I think because it was overcrowded.

“When we started seeing that people were collapsing, we were all panicking, trying to get out, but it was so difficult,” she said.

“I felt like crying.”

Adding to her anguish was the realisation that one of her friends, 16-year-old Sinothando Mgangalwa, didn’t make it.

Desperate parents and relatives rushed to Enyobeni tavern as news about the horrific incident rapidly spread. But they could not get in as the police had already declared the premises a crime scene.

Families were instructed to go to Woodbrook mortuary where the 18 bodies, and three of those who later died in hospital, had been taken to.

During the day, Police Minister Bheki Cele arrived to inspect the scene. He could not contain his agony as he met distraught family members, with some claiming not to have known that their children were out partying while they were asleep.

Among those was Xolile Malangeni who lost his 17-year-old daughter, matric pupil Esinako. She was wearing pyjamas the last time her parents saw her, and they didn’t know she was planning to go out.

Vusumzi Mngxongo, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Pinky,  said: “She went out quite often on weekends but would come home around two or three in the morning. I would wake up and open up for her. I became worried this morning when I didn’t hear her knocking at the door at the usual time, then I heard about what had happened.”

Phuthumani said the incident taught her that her dreams are more important than partying.

“I will never go out clubbing again. I know it’s a tough decision but my mind is made up,” said Phuthumani.

She said young people who still want to go out clubbing should always check whether there are emergency exits.

Executive director of the Border-Kei Chamber of Business, Lizelle Maurice, said everyone must take the blame for the premature deaths of 21 young people, from their parents who claim not to have been aware their children had slipped out, to the business owner who did not care whether those children were eight or 18,  bouncers who didn’t check their identities, and the liquor board,  which failed to conduct an  inspection before issuing a liquor licence.

“This tragedy speaks of a greater societal problem. We have become a tolerant society where nothing is questioned and acted upon anymore. Surely there were other adults in that facility that saw that those children were too young.”

Throughout the week  police forensic teams  were piecing together evidence.  A source from Woodbrook mortuary, where the postmortems were performed told Sunday World that the victims could have inhaled some kind of gas.

Meanwhile, the neighbouring community has described the tavern owner as a man who never respected the law. They claim Siyakhangela Ndevu sold alcohol when it was forbidden during the Covid-19 lockdown, and said he has informers in the police.

Neighbours said they endured loud music on Friday and Saturday nights, and their appeals for the music to stop after a certain hour fell on deaf ears.

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