A terrific fire at a Brazilian nightclub left at least 232 dead in the pre-dawn hours on January 26 in Santa Maria, a city in Rio Grande do Sul which is near the border shared with Argentina. It is believed the be the deadliest nightclub fire in the world for more than 10 years. Santa Maria is a city of some 250,000 and hosts a sizeable student population. The Kiss nightclub was hosting an event for the Federal University of Santa Maria when the blaze erupted at approximately 2 AM. Most of those attending the event were students at the university.
Television reports showed young male partygoers joining with fire brigades to break windows and walls in an desperate effort to save those trapped inside. Burned and bruised teenaged students were seen being carried away to local hospitals by their friends. Local authorities do not yet have a firm count of the dead since the charred remains of victims were still being discovered and identified. There are fears that the death toll could reach 245.
One survivor, Luana Santos Silva, told television interviewers “There was so much smoke and fire, it was complete panic and it took a long time for people to get out, there were so many dead,” as she sobbed. One woman was heard to scream, "My son, my son, I want my son back."
Pyrotechnics were used by the show producers during the musical performance and dance for the students. Authorities theorize that the light show may have caused the fire. The club was filled far past capacity, There were as many as 2,000 partygoers at the club. One witness told a Sao Paulo newspaper that the fire broke out when members of the band lit flares. Michele Pereira said “The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward. At that point the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak but in a matter of seconds it spread." It was a group called Gurizada Fandangueira, which plays a danceable version of Brazilian country music was playing. It is not known whether members of the band are among the dead.
One witness said that there was no emergency exit at the Kiss nightclub and that panic and a rush to the doors ensued just five minutes after the fire broke out. There are reports that some persons who tried to leave were hampered by security guards demanding that their bar tabs be paid.
President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil return from a EU-Latin America summit meeting in Chile because of the tragedy. "We are together necessarily. We are going to make it through this tragedy," Rousseff said.
According to Santa Maria police chief Marcelo Arigony, there could be many minors among the victims, who had entered the party with fake ID. O Globo, a Brazilian daily, reported that most victims are between 16 and 20 years. More than 116 people are currently in hospital, following the second-most deadly fire in Brazil’s history. So far, a complete list of names of the deceased has not been released.
Colonel Guido Melo Pedroso of the Santa Maria fire department said about 85 firefighters who arrived at the scene of the fire had difficulty entering the site. According to Melo Pedroso, firefighters rescued about 150 people alive from inside the nightclub. Firefighters could not initially enter through the main door of the nightclub, having encountered "a wall of bodies" blocking entrance. The door had been locked from the inside.
Another official reported that 90% of the bodies were in the two bathrooms - one male and another female. The club had only one exit. Two trucks carried the bodies to a local gymnasium where a military cordon prevented relatives and onlookers from entering as experts examined the bodies. Authorities have since placed identity documents and the cell phones of the deceased on their chests in an effort to aid identification. The cell phones are ringing continuously as friends and relatives still call their loved ones in a hopeless effort to discover them alive.
The governor of Rio Grande do Sul has declared an official day of mourning, while the Gaucho Football Federation has called off matches to honor the dead.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.