At least 21 teenagers died over the weekend after a night out at a township tavern in South Africa, officials said Sunday.
Although the cause of the deaths is still unclear, local officials and politicians said they feared this might have been a case of underage drinking that went tragically wrong.
The provincial government of Eastern Cape said eight girls and 13 boys had died at the tavern, in a residential area called Scenery Park. Seventeen were found dead at the scene, while the rest died in hospital.
Empty bottles of alcohol, wigs and even a pastel purple "Happy Birthday" sash were found strewn on the dusty street outside the double-story Enyobeni Tavern, said Unathi Binqose, a safety government official who arrived at the scene at dawn.
Many of the victims are thought to have been students celebrating the end of their high-school exams on Saturday night, officials said.
There were no visible wounds on the bodies, but autopsies would determine if the deaths could be linked to poisoning, they added.
Among the senior government officials who rushed to the southern city was Police Minister Bheki Cele.
He broke down in tears after emerging from a morgue where the bodies were being stored.
"It's a terrible scene," he told reporters. "They are pretty young. When you are told they are 13 years, 14 years and you go there and you see them. It breaks [you]."
Drinking is permitted for over-18s. But in township taverns which are often situated cheek by jowl with family homes, safety regulations and drinking-age laws are not always enforced.
"We have a child that was there, who passed away on the scene," said the parents of a 17-year-old girl.
"This child, we were not thinking was going to die this way. This was a humble child, respectful," said grieving mother Ntombizonke Mgangala.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is attending the G7 summit in Germany, sent his condolences.
He voiced concern "about the reported circumstances under which such young people were gathered at a venue which, on the face of it, should be off-limits to persons under the age of 18."
The authorities are now considering whether to revise liquor licensing regulations.
South Africa is among the countries in Africa where most alcohol is consumed.
Provincial prime minister Oscar Mabuyane condemned the "unlimited consumption of liquor."
"You can't just trade in the middle of society like this and think that young people are not going to experiment," he said.
Commenting on the tragedy, the tavern's owner, Siyakhangela Ndevu, said: "It's not something that as a businessman, I expected to have happened there, but things like this happen unexpectedly."