TWENTY-TWO teenagers were found dead early Sunday morning in a tavern in the coastal city of East London, South Africa, the police said, in a tragedy that remains something of a mystery and that has left much of the country, including top officials, reeling emotionally.
Initial reports were that the teenagers, who the police say ranged in age from 13 to 17, died from a stampede.
But Bheki Cele, the national police minister, said investigators had not confirmed that theory.
He was overcome with tears as he spoke about the victims, nine girls and 12 boys.
“It’s a scary thing,” Mr. Cele said outside of the mortuary where the victims were being examined.
“I got inside but could not go any further to where they were opening up the bodies,” he added, his voice trailing off as he buried his face in his left hand and began to cry, turning away from the crowd.
President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his sympathy in a statement.
And senior officials from across Eastern Cape Province and the rest of the country descended upon the Scenery Park neighborhood, northwest of East London’s city center, to help attend to the fallout from the tragedy.
Television news footage showed local residents, many of them seeking information about loved ones, gathered on a dirt road outside the modest building housing the bar, Enyobeni Tavern, which is tucked in a residential community.
“We really cannot understand what has happened here,” the Eastern Cape 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.
Unathi Binqose, the spokesman for the Department of Community Safety in the Eastern Cape, 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’s 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.
Bouncers told investigators that in an effort to control the crowd, they closed the doors to the venue, Mr. Binqose said.
People outside were said to have tried to push their way in, setting off a panic and a stampede, which may have been exacerbated by someone releasing pepper spray, he said.
But the theory of a stampede seemed inconsistent with what forensic experts had found so far in terms of injuries to the victims, Mr. Binqose said.
Victims were found sprawled on the gray tile floor, but also on a sofa and a coffee table.
“In terms of physical evidence, nothing points to a stampede,” he said.
He said the police had seized surveillance footage taken at the bar.
Speaking to eNCA, a South African television news network, the bar’s owner, Siyakhangela Ngevu, said he was not there when the deaths occurred.
He rushed there after his security guards called him, he said, and found chaos, with children everywhere.
Some had forced their way into the tavern, he said.
He said he could not dispute that pepper spray might have been used and contributed to the deaths.
In South Africa, the minimum age for patronizing a bar is 18. Mr. Ngevu told the station that his establishment did not allow minors in, but that they sometimes hung out outside.
Mr. Cele and other public officials admonished the parents of those who had been at the bar.
“As parents, we all have to be responsible for our children,” he said. “How can you go to bed knowing that your child is not in the house?”
NEW YORK TIMES