JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Twenty-one teenagers were found dead early Sunday morning in a tavern in the coastal city of East London, South Africa, 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 police say ranged in ages from 13 to 17, died from a stampede. But Bheki Cele, the national police minister, said investigators had not confirmed that theory.
President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his sympathy in a statement. And senior officials 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.
“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 spokesperson, said police had received a call about 4 a.m. reporting deaths at the tavern.
Unathi Binqose, the spokesperson for the Department of Community Safety in the Eastern Cape, said the tavern had hosted a large party 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, 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, 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, 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 police had seized surveillance footage taken at the bar.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.