As Tom Mandala leaned out of the fifth-floor window of his burning Johannesburg apartment building early Thursday, it felt as if the only decision he had left to make was how to die.
He could turn and run for the stairs, but the thick smoke and searing flames would surely overwhelm him, he suspected. Or he could jump out the window and get splashed on the sidewalk below.
He said the second option was the best way to ensure his family in Malawi could recover his body. After about five minutes of agonizing consideration, Mr. Mandala, 26, jumped up.
“I wasn’t thinking anything,” he said of the moment he floated through the air.
Landing on his feet caused such pain in his lower legs that tears began to flow, he said. His right ankle was broken and his left leg was badly injured. But he was alive.
Mr Mandala was among the lucky survivors of a fire that killed at least 74 people and injured dozens more on Thursday, one of the deadliest residential fires in South Africa’s history. The abandoned building in downtown Johannesburg had been taken over by illegal landlords and become a sprawling settlement that served as a last resort for hundreds of struggling South Africans and immigrants looking for a break in one of Africa’s most advanced economies .
As investigators searched the ashy rubble Friday, more details emerged about the chaotic, horrific conditions in a building that city officials said was so unsafe that it should never have been occupied in the first place. Officials said the building had been “hijacked” by criminals who extorted money from the working poor who could not afford formal housing.
Interviews with survivors of the fire revealed that while the city-owned property was not a formal apartment, it functioned as one, with residents paying monthly rent to people they called landlords.
On Friday morning, Abdul Manyungwa, a local entrepreneur and Malawi native who has lived in South Africa for 11 years, was on site collecting contact information from the survivors to help them arrange accommodation. Most come from Malawi, he said, part of a southern African country that, according to the World Bank, has one of the highest poverty rates in the world. Others were South African and some came from Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
Although many of the residents were immigrants, the people they paid rent to appeared to be South African. Several residents described their landlords as men who spoke isiZulu, the native language of South Africa’s Zulu people. Rents ranged from $32 to nearly $100 per month, depending on family size, and included electricity and water provided through illegal connections.
Residents and city officials described a building that was a fire trap. There were no emergency exits or sprinkler systems. The rooms were divided with cardboard and sheets, and some residents lived in dozens of tin shacks constructed inside the building in an open space on the ground floor.
Authorities said many of the fire’s victims were trapped behind a locked gate, and Mr. Mandala said there was such a gate at the bottom of the stairwell leading to the ground floor. He had no key and had to wait for someone with a key to open it every time he wanted to leave the building.
Despite the dismal conditions, the building was a blessing for him, he said.
He moved to South Africa a year ago after failing to find work as a police officer or teacher in Malawi. He had heard of other Malawians coming to South Africa and earning enough to build nice houses, so he thought he could follow the same path.
But when he arrived, he found it just as difficult to make a living in South Africa, an economic hub on the continent. He worked as a cell phone accessories salesman, a job that paid just over $100 a month, while also paying about $80 a month in rent, leaving little left over for living expenses.
Mr Mandala said he moved into the building where the fire broke out three months ago and shared a room with four other Malawians. The five of them were crammed into two beds, but he only paid $32 a month.
With the reduced rent, life is still hard but much more comfortable, he said.
That lasted until a roommate lying next to him woke him up on Thursday morning. When he opened the door to her apartment, he was hit by smoke in the hallway, he said. So he broke open the window and peered out.
Only four of them were home at the time, Mr. Mandala said. He also encouraged his roommates to jump out the window. One of them followed and he too survived. The two who did not remain missing, Mr. Mandala said.