SANTA MARIA, Brazil — There was no fire alarm. There were no sprinklers or fire escapes. And when a band member tried to put out a fire that had been started by pyrotechnics, the extinguisher didn’t work.
All the elements were in place for the tragedy at the Kiss nightclub early Sunday. The result was the world’s worst fire of its kind in more than a decade, with 231 people dead and this southern Brazilian college town in shock and mourning.
Funerals began on Monday, as reports continued to emerge about the accumulation of neglect and errors at the packed night spot.
According to state safety codes here, clubs should have one fire extinguisher every 1,500 square feet as well as multiple emergency exits. Limits on the number of people admitted are to be strictly respected. None of that appears to have happened at the Santa Maria nightclub.
“A problem in Brazil is that there is no control of how many people are admitted in a building,” said Joao Daniel Nunes, a civil engineer in nearby Porto Alegre. “They never are clearly stated, and nobody controls how many people enter these night clubs.”
Santa Maria’s mayor, Jose Fortunati, told Radio Gaucha that dozens of night spots were closed last year for failing to meet norms.
“At that time, we had lots of protest from those who frequented them, but I think that today people understand it better and that at times hard stands must be taken so that steps are taken to not put people’s lives at risk,” Fortunati said.
Brazilian police said they detained three people in connection with the blaze, while the newspaper O Globo said on its website that a fourth person had surrendered to police. Police Inspector Ranolfo Vieira Junior said the detentions were part of the ongoing police probe and those detained can be held for up to five days.
Vieira declined to identify those detained, but the Brazilian newspaper Zero Hora quotes lawyer Jader Marques saying his client Elissandro Spohr, a co-owner of the club, had been held. Globo reported that the fourth person detained was another club co-owner. G1, Globo Television’s Internet portal, reported that Spohr acknowledged the club’s operating license was not up to date but said the pyrotechnics show started the blaze.
Zero Hora said police also detained two members of the band. The band’s guitarist told Brazilian media he saw flames lick the ceiling after the group’s spark machine was deployed.
More than 100 people remained hospitalized for smoke, local officials said.
National Health Minister Alexandre Padilha cautioned that the death toll could worsen dramatically. Speaking to media in Santa Maria, he said that 75 of those injured were in critical condition and could die.
However, Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a doctor helping coordinate the emergency response, said he was optimistic at least some of those injured would pull through.
“It’s impossible to predict what will happen, because they are all in a very delicate state, but there’s hope for all of them,” said Beltrame, adding that more than 40 survivors had been sent to neighboring cities for treatment of burns and smoke inhalation. “One of the problems we’re having here is that all these people need to be on respirators and we don’t have enough respirators in the city.”
The event raises questions of whether Brazilian authorities are up to the task of ensuring safety in such venues ahead of it hosting next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Some critics have said conditions in many Brazilian bars and clubs are ripe for another deadly blaze. In addition to modernizing sometimes outdated safety codes and ensuring sufficient inspectors, people have to change their way of thinking and respect safety regulations.
Funeral services were held for several of the 231 victims, most of them college students 18 to 21 years old. Some of the victims were minors. Most died from smoke inhalation rather than burns.
Witnesses said security guards who didn’t know about the blaze initially blocked people from leaving without paying their bills. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they’re allowed to leave. Many of the dead were found in the club’s two bathrooms, where the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.
Rodrigo Martins, a guitarist for the group Gurizada Fandangueira, told Globo TV network in an interview Monday that the flames broke out minutes after the deployment of a pyrotechnic machine that fans out colored sparks, at around 2:30 a.m. local time.
“I felt that something was falling from the roof and I looked up and I saw the fire was spreading, and I shouted ‘Look, it’s catching on fire, man, it’s catching fire,”’ Martins said. “Then the drummer tried to throw water on it, and it looked like the fire spread more then. Then the security guards came with an extinguisher, tried to use it, but it didn’t work.”
He added that the club was packed and estimated the crowd at about 1,200-1,300 people.
“I thought I was going to die there. There was nothing I could do, with the fire spreading and people screaming in front.”
Martins confirmed that the group’s accordion player Danilo Jacques, 28, died, while the five other band members made it out safely. Martins said he thought Jacques made it out of the building and later returned to save his accordion.
Martins said the group nearly always used the so-called Sputnik pyrotechnics machine and that it had never before caused any problem, even in smaller venues. An electrical short circuit could also possibly have been to blame for the fire, he suggested.
Still, police were leaning toward the pyrotechnics as the likely cause of the tragedy. Police inspector Antonio Firmino, who’s part of the team investigating Sunday’s blaze, said it appeared the club’s ceiling was covered with an insulating foam made from a combustible material that ignited with the pyrotechnics. He said the number and state of the exits is under investigation but that it appeared that a second door was “inadequate,” as it was small and protected by bars that wouldn’t open.
Television images from Santa Maria showed black smoke billowing out of the Kiss nightclub as shirtless young men who attended the university party joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at the hot-pink exterior walls, trying to reach those trapped inside. Teenagers sprinted from the scene after the fire began, desperately seeking help. Others carried injured and burned friends away in their arms. About half of those killed were men, and another half women.
The party was organized by students from several academic departments at the Federal University of Santa Maria. Such organized university parties are common throughout Brazil.
“This shook the whole town,” said Ocimar Franco, neighbor of fire victim Taize Santos, before her funeral Monday. “I feel the whole world is watching our town. I wish it were for another reason.”
Among the dead were also brothers Pedro and Marcelo Salla, who were both buried Monday.
Beltrame said he was told the club had been filled far beyond its capacity, and the crowds and thickness of the smoke made it hard for people to find their way out.
“Large amounts of toxic smoke quickly filled the room, and I would say that at least 90 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation,” Beltrame said. “The toxic smoke made people lose their sense of direction so they were unable to find their way to the exit. At least 50 bodies were found inside a bathroom.”
Beltrame said people who were inside the club and thought they made it out safely have started to turn up at area hospitals with symptoms of smoke inhalation, which he said can take hours or even days to appear. He estimated that around 15 people have sought out help in the past few hours and said some have had to be intubated.
Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer declared a 30-day mourning period, and Tarso Genro, the governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, said officials were investigating the cause of the disaster.
The blaze was the deadliest in Brazil since at least 1961, when a fire that swept through a circus killed 503 people in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro.
Sunday’s fire also appeared to be the worst at a nightclub anywhere in the world since December 2000, when a welding accident reportedly set off a fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309 people.
Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja contributed to this report from Brasilia, Brazil, Stan Lehman and Bradley Brooks contributed from Sao Paulo and Jenny Barchfield contributed from Rio de Janeiro.