LISTEN | Enyobeni: Authorities unclear how methanol entered bodies of deceased, and if it was enough to kill

19 July 2022 - 15:00
By Alex Patrick
Hundreds gathered at the Enyobeni tavern for a candlelit ceremony. File image.
Image: Michael Pinyana Hundreds gathered at the Enyobeni tavern for a candlelit ceremony. File image.

Families continue to have many unanswered questions about the deaths of their loved ones at the Enyobeni tavern in East London on June 26. 

Methanol, a toxic alcohol found in industrial solvents, fuels, fertilisers and many other products, was found in the blood of all 21 children.

Although a natural alcohol, methanol is not an ingredient in the alcohol we drink. Liquor is made with ethanol. Both liquids are clear and colourless.

Eastern Cape health DG Dr Litha Matiwane announced the finding when police and health officials met with parents on Tuesday.

Matiwane made it clear that while methanol was found, they did not know if this was the cause of death. He said they were investigating if the levels of methanol in the blood were toxic.

Tissue and blood samples were sent to the forensic pathology laboratory in Cape Town,  where they also tested for alcohol and carbon monoxide poisoning but found the levels were not high enough to cause death.

“We are looking for other chemicals — formic acid being one. Formic acid is a byproduct of methanol and [if found] can tell us more about the levels of toxicity. We are also processing gastric and bowel tissue to see if there are other activities,” said Matiwane.

He said they also had to determine how the chemical entered the children's bloodstream. “The first way it gets into the body is to ingest it. But it is a byproduct from other chemicals, so it could have been something else. Hence we say we are investigating.”

Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane said when the news first broke of the deaths, they assumed the cause of death was a stampede, but this had been ruled out by the postmortems.

“We definitely couldn’t rely on logic on this one. It’s still difficult to fathom exactly what happened, but now we have a sense of direction from the labs,” he said.

“We have informed the families. People are shattered, devastated by this incident. What makes this different is that young people died.”

He said the liquor board opened a case of contravening the Liquor Act in relation to the incident, as underage children were served alcohol, and the owner of the tavern and some employees had been arrested.

Police have also opened an inquest into the deaths and the final forensic laboratory findings will inform the inquiry and subsequent case. 

Police minister Bheki Cele said he would visit the area again. He commented on a flyer which had allegedly called for schoolchildren to gather on the Saturday.

Reporters asked if there was a possibility the children could have got together and ingested a substance before entering the tavern. Cele said they would investigate the gathering because there was nothing illegal in children getting together.

Matiwane said they could not determine where the methanol entered the children's bodies until they had more information. 

On the Monday after the incident Cele spoke at the Rural Safety Summit in Parys, in the Free State, where he said the children started dying from about 2.13am on June 26.

“Those kids started dying at 2.13am until 4am. They died as they danced. They danced and fell and died, literally. And they were pushed to the side and others kept dancing. Others felt dizzy and fell asleep on the sofa and died.

“Somebody should have done something. These kids are supposed to be under parental supervision.”


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