JOHANNESBURG — At least 17 people, some believed to be in their teens, were found dead early Sunday morning in a tavern in the coastal city of East London, South Africa, the police said.
Although investigators were still trying to determine what led to the deaths, initial reports suggested that the club had been overcrowded and that there had been a stampede, said Unathi Binqose, the spokesman for the Department of Community Safety in Eastern Cape Province.
Television news footage showed local residents gathered on a dirt road outside the modest building housing the bar, Enyobeni Tavern, many of them seeking information about loved ones. Senior officials from across the province, including the premier and the police commissioner, were at the scene in the Scenery Park neighborhood, northwest of East London’s city center.
“We really cannot understand what has happened here,” the premier, Oscar Mabuyane, told reporters. “It just can’t be. It should not happen like this.”
Brig. Tembinkosi Kinana, a police spokesman, said the police had received a call about 4 a.m. reporting deaths at the tavern.
Mr. Binqose said the tavern had hosted a large party on Saturday night, featuring two DJs who were celebrating their birthdays. The party was also billed as a celebration of South Africa dropping its mask mandate for public places, which had been in effect since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Binqose said.
“It attracted huge numbers — more than the tavern can accommodate,” he said of the party.
The tavern’s owners have told investigators that bouncers closed the doors to try to control the size of the crowd, Mr. Binqose said. People outside were said to have tried to push their way in, setting off a panic, which may have been exacerbated by someone releasing pepper spray, he said.
But Mr. Binqose added that those accounts had yet to be confirmed by the police. “There are a lot of stories flying around,” he said.
He said the police had seized surveillance footage taken at the bar.
Brigadier Kinana said the victims probably ranged in age from about 18 to 20. By late morning, the police had confirmed 17 deaths, but some feared that the toll would rise.