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Mass funeral held for 21 teenagers who mysteriously died at South African nightclub

PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

(EAST LONDON, South Africa) — More than a thousand people gathered in South Africa’s coastal town of East London on Wednesday to attend a funeral for 21 teenagers who died under mysterious circumstances at a popular nightclub nearly two weeks ago.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was among the many mourners — mostly grieving family, friends and other members of the community in East London’s Scenery Park township. When giving the eulogy for the young victims, Ramaphosa said the last words of the youngest — a 13-year-old boy — was: “Mama, I am coming back.”

A large tent erected on a sports field for the service was not big enough to accommodate the number of people in attendance, so hundreds more sat outside and watched on television screens. Friends and classmates of the victims were dressed in their school uniforms as they paid their respects. Candles were lit alongside photographs of each of the deceased.

Only 19 coffins were on display in the tent, as two families had already held private burials. However, the coffins were all empty, in respect of the wishes of the families who “did not want their children paraded in public,” according to Samkelo Ngwenya, a spokesperson for the local government, the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality. The bodies will be buried in private ceremonies at various cemeteries after Wednesday’s symbolic funeral and in the coming days, Ngwenya told ABC News.

The Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality provided burial assistance to the victims’ families.

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What caused the deaths of the 21 teens — 12 girls and nine boys — remains unknown. They were found at the Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, a suburb on the edge of East London in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, in the predawn hours of June 26. Seventeen of the victims were pronounced dead at the scene, while four others died when they were hospitalized or being transported to hospitals, according to the South African Police Service.

Police said the victims ranged in age from 13 to 17 — all under South Africa’s legal drinking age of 18. The Eastern Cape Liquor Board has opened a criminal case against the owners of the Enyobeni Tavern for allegedly selling alcohol to minors.

Earlier this week, Ramaphosa wrote in his weekly letter to the public that South Africa needs to have a “frank conversation” about alcohol consumption. He warned that the increased social acceptability of young people consuming alcohol has become a serious problem in a country where the majority of the drinking population is already classified by the World Health Organization as binge drinkers.

Toxicology reports were still pending as of Wednesday. A stampede has been ruled out because the bodies did not show any serious injuries, according to police.

Police have declined to comment on possible causes of deaths or the circumstances surrounding the incident, citing the ongoing investigation. No arrests have been made and no suspects have been named in connection with the probe, according to police.

“There are no new developments at this stage,” Brig. Tembinkosi Kinana, a spokesperson for the South African Police Service, told ABC News on Tuesday.” At an appropriate time and once the [toxicology] results are out, a formal statement will be issued. It has not yet been determined as to when the results will be out.”

The Daily Dispatch, a South African newspaper published in East London, reported that the teens were attending a party at the Enyobeni Tavern to celebrate the end of June school exams. Their bodies were reportedly found strewn across tables, chairs and the dance floor with no visible signs of injuries.

A 22-year-old Scenery Park resident, Sibongile Mtsewu, told ABC News he was at the Enyobeni Tavern when the deadly incident unfolded. He said he was ordering drinks at the crowded club when suddenly the doors were closed and some type of chemical agent, such as tear gas or pepper spray, was released into the air.

“There was no way out,” Mtsewu told ABC News in a telephone interview last week. “There was no chance to breathe.”

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