11 Locked-in Workers Die as Factory Explodes in South Africa

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11 Locked-in Workers Die as Factory Explodes in South Africa By Susanna Loof Associated Press Writer

LENASIA, South Africa (AP) - A fire and explosion in a floor polish factory killed 11 workers who had apparently been locked inside the building by the owner, police said Saturday. "It seems there wasn't any open door in there, because if there was, they would have escaped," police spokesman Superintendent Richard Luvhengo said.

The fire in the small brick building late Friday night was likely started when a highly flammable chemical dripped onto a gas burner, Luvhengo said. The barrel was illegally stored inside the factory. The fire spread to gas containers, which then exploded, he said.

None of the employees - 10 women and one man - working the overnight shift survived. The positioning of their bodies indicated they tried to run away from the blaze but were unable to get out, Luvhengo said. A delivery door blown out by the explosion still had a padlock attached.

Police were questioning the factory owner, who could face charges of murder, culpable homicide or negligence, Luvhengo said.

At this stage, police do not believe race was an issue, Luvhengo said. The owner is Indian and "employed people of different races," he said. The polish company, Esschem, had about 70 workers.

The factory, located in Lenasia 25 miles southwest of Johannesburg, was required to have an emergency exit because it used highly flammable chemicals, but it did not appear to have one, he said.

Colleagues of the victims said the owners always locked them inside, despite their complaints.

"Everyday, the owner takes the key, locks it and goes," said employee Agnes Nkanyane. "We don't know why. Maybe they don't trust us."

Nkanyane, 26, said the owner had done nothing about the fire hazard though employees had told him that a fire had nearly broken out in the factory several times.

By Saturday afternoon, police had removed four bodies from the factory. The remaining bodies were difficult to remove because a plastic substance had melted and glued them to the floor, Luvhengo said.

Angry workers gathered outside the factory demanding to see the factory owner. Luvhengo said the owner had been at the site earlier Saturday, but was taken to a police station.

Several employees cried loudly, and one woman fainted. Rehana Adam, a member of the Lenasia city council, tried to console workers and urged them to bring safety complaints to the council.

-- cin (cin@cin.cin), November 18, 2000

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