South African Gas Tragedy Claims 21 Lives; Is carbon monoxide the culprit?

While there still is no official explanation for the South African gas tragedy that claimed 21 lives, many of the details line up with what could happen in a carbon monoxide poisoning.

By Rebecca Martin

A heartbreaking story came out of the coastal city of East London in South Africa on Sunday, June 26. Partygoers celebrating the birthday of two DJs and the end of the mask mandate were victims of a horrific incident which still remains a mystery. The small tavern  hosting the event had been filled to beyond capacity and had previously come under scrutiny for failings in its operations. Police responded to the tavern around 4 AM when reports of deaths came in.

South African gas tragedy

Could mysterious South African gas tragedy that claimed 21 lives have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning? Many clues point to the possibility of a portable electric generator or other fuel burning appliance being the source of the gas. 

Initially it was believed that the 21 teenagers found dead at the scene had succumbed to injuries due to a stampede through the single doorway which bouncers had admitted to closing off in order to keep more people from pushing their way in, sparking a panic. But further investigation of the scene confirmed that the deaths had not been due to a stampede.

Witnesses at the scene had described a brief power outage prior to the incident, which was not an uncommon occurrence in the area. When the power came back on, a foul order seemed to come from the floor.  “Some said it smelled like pepper spray, while others likened it to tear gas.” A rapper finishing his set described hearing gasping all around him. Suffering bites from panicked partygoers trying to escape he described the presence of gas as it touched his wounds.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/world/africa/south-africa-tavern-teen-deaths.html

 “Mr. Mapasa said that the gas had tingled as it touched his wounds. He felt groggy, he added, sinking to his knees.” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/world/africa/south-africa-tavern-teen-deaths.html

 Later, parents who rushed to the scene described the bodies as unrecognizable.

“At first, he didn’t recognize his son’s body among the rows of corpses because the boy’s skin had turned so dark. Another victim, a 17-year-old, was similarly unrecognizable just hours after her death, said her friend, Sinenjongo Phuthumani, who was also at the tavern.” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/world/africa/south-africa-tavern-teen-deaths.html

While local officials cite stricter rules for taverns and underage drinking and others claim that raising the drinking age is necessary and others focus on the miscellaneous complaints about the operations of the tavern, we are asking the questions: what was the source of the gas and what type of gas was it?

The first clue was the initial appearance of the gas following the power outage. As soon as the power came back on, reports of smelling gas at that moment ensued. There are two possibilities here; one, that when the power went off so did some type of fuel burning device, which restarted when the power came back on but was then malfunctioning. Or two, the timing was coincidental and pepper spray or tear gas was used as soon as the power returned.

Does Pepper Spray Explain South African Natural Gas Tragedy?

Pepper spray is a mixture of chemicals and chili pepper extract which burns the eyes and skin. https://www.npr.org/sections/theprotojournalist/2013/12/05/248971957/pepper-spray-for-the-holidays-and-beyond  But what does it smell like?

“One of the best descriptions we have found is that it’s something like cutting onions, only 100 times stronger.” https://www.getsmellout.com/how-to-get-pepper-spray-out-of-car/

Is it fatal if used indoors? According to Poison Control “These effects are usually mild and temporary, lasting minutes to hours. However, more severe injury is possible including corneal abrasions, wheezing, and skin blisters. People with lung conditions, such as asthma or COPD, can have more severe breathing effects when pepper spray is inhaled.” https://www.poison.org/articles/how-dangerous-is-pepper-spray-201

Could it be Tear Gas?

What about tear gas? Tear gas, unlike pepper spray is not composed of only natural compounds. There are several different types of tear gas with varying strengths, CN, CS and CR. The most commonly used is CS.

“People react differently to CS. Drill sergeants, who are repeatedly exposed to it in training, may build up a sort of tolerance to it (not the same as an immunity) while others are very sensitive to CS.” https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2020/there-are-many-types-of-tear-gas-heres-how-to-tell-the-difference/

If exposure to tear gas is suspected there are protocols for exposure. According to Poison Control, even after leaving the scene of contamination an extensive decontamination should follow. This includes removing clothing preferably by cutting it off and double bagging it for disposal, decontamination of the body, irrigation of the eyes, and contacts, eyeglasses, jewelry and other items decontaminated or discarded. We did not see a mention of the actions taken after the incident.

“CS is considered safe to use on healthy people, but the real effects are not known because, medical researchers said, the research has been mostly done by the military and those documents are classified. One researcher also wrote about complications that have arisen when a person who has been hit with tear gas also needs medical attention. Surgeons said it can cause big problems in the operating room if the patient is still having problems breathing.” https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2020/there-are-many-types-of-tear-gas-heres-how-to-tell-the-difference/

There is another chemical  which has a distinctive smell and that is mercaptan. Mercaptan is added to natural gas and propane as a safety feature as both of those gases have no smell.  It is often described as a rotten egg smell and warns if there is a build-up of dangerous gas which could lead to an explosion. Carbon monoxide levels may also be high in accompaniment of a gas leak.

Could a Generator Explain South African Gas Tragedy?

“While carbon monoxide is odorless, sometimes it is accompanied by exhaust gases you can in fact smell” https://www.apialarm.com/blog/protection/10-signs-of-a-carbon-monoxide-leak/

There are other clues in the South African story.  We are told that power outages are common in this part of the world so no-one found the power outage that night very unusual. “After 12:30 a.m., the tavern went dark, but no one flinched — electricity blackouts are a common occurrence in South Africa.” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/world/africa/south-africa-tavern-teen-deaths.html

The weather was described as a cold winter night in South Africa.  Ventilation in the building was limited to the single door which had been closed as more people tried to force their way into the building. The two windows were broken to attempt to let air in after the stampede ensued. And the building itself is under scrutiny.

“The license given to the hastily built tavern with two floors and just one entrance is under scrutiny, the owners are under criminal investigation…” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/world/africa/south-africa-tavern-teen-deaths.html

We are also told that the power came back on immediately with the dance floor lights powering up and music resuming on the second floor. The party had been scheduled to end at midnight, but the sequence of events which occurred after the power was restored began around 12:30 AM. Police did not arrive on the scene until 4 AM even though call logs showed that neighbors had been calling for several hours at that point.

“Some of the unconscious victims were still inside the tavern, splayed on pleather couches or just lying on the dance floor — the dead and injured side by side.” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/world/africa/south-africa-tavern-teen-deaths.html

 This description of the scene reminds us so much of the aftermath of a carbon monoxide incident. And interestingly it could have originated somewhere else.

“The tavern, which shares a wall with several private homes, has long divided this community…” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/world/africa/south-africa-tavern-teen-deaths.html

Was an investigation done to locate an onsite generator or a heater/boiler  which may have malfunctioned when the power went back on? Were the residences which shared a common wall with the tavern investigated as well? On this cold winter night below the equator, adjoining residences would have been running heaters.

The clues seem to point to a possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. The problem was observed once the power was restored.  An odor was detected by witnesses. At the same time the bouncer had closed the one exit to keep more people from entering. The performer on the second floor heard the sounds of people gasping.  There was no mention of coughing, irritated eyes or other symptoms which could be explained by pepper spray or tear gas. “The music only stopped when screams pierced the pandemonium, survivors recalled.” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/world/africa/south-africa-tavern-teen-deaths.html  This would imply that perhaps people had collapsed at this point and that in general people were not experiencing the symptoms one might expect from tear gas or pepper spray.

We are also wondering at the forensic results and hope those will be shared publicly.

Too Often Carbon monoxide poisoning Isn’t Considered

While appreciating the community’s anger over the tavern itself, or inadequate drinking laws; the point is that 21 young people lost their lives due to an incident that should bring more focus on carbon monoxide safety. Too often, Carbon monoxide poisoning  is not even considered. The smell issue is really poorly understood. The more serious the carbon monoxide poisoning, the more likely that the human nose will detect it. As recently as in the Sandals Hotel poisoning in the Bahamas, Carbon monoxide poisoning was determined until well after the fact. In the infamous Boone Best Western poisoning, it was determined until after the next fatality.

This is an international issue which many agencies are working to shed light on. It is imperative to share not only global standards of safety but emergency response and medical protocols as well.

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