A fast-moving fire roared through a crowded, windowless nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, filling the air in seconds with flames and a thick, toxic smoke that killed more than 230 panicked partygoers, many of whom were caught in a stampede to escape.
From Miami to New York to Brazil, thousands of Brazilians are mourning their fellow compatriots who died when a fire ripped through a popular nightclub, killing hundreds.
Three people were detained and a fourth person was sought as funerals began for the victims of the fire. A military brigade official said Monday the death toll now stands at 231 people in the early Sunday blaze in the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, a university town of about 260,000 people in southern Brazil.
Inspector Ranolfo Vieira Junior said at a news conference that the detentions are for investigative purposes only. He declined to identify who was being held, but the Brazilian newspaper Zero Hora quotes lawyer Jader Marques saying his client Elissandro Spohr, a co-owner of the club, and two band members on stage when the blaze broke out were the ones detained. The band members were thought to have used pyrotechnics in their act.
Those who were learning about the tragedy abroad said it struck close to home.
“It’s a huge tragedy. First of all, numbers wise, we lost about 30 children in Newtown and now we have 230 dead and more injured,” said Janet Sternberg, a Fordham professor who grew up in Brazil, told Fox News Latino.
Many of the victims were under 20 years old. Most victims died from smoke inhalation rather than burns.
“I have family in that city. I was so worried yesterday, I was concerned the whole day and trying to reach out,” said Eloisa Galvao, director of the Brazilian Women’s Group in Boston.“I spoke to my sister in Brazil, my cousin and some of my friends. A lot of the young people attended that club. How do you cope with that?”
Police believe the pyrotechnics ignited sound insulation on the ceiling, while witnesses have reported a fire extinguisher didn't work and that there was only one working exit. Many of the dead were also found in the club's two bathrooms, where they fled apparently because the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.
Firefighters responding to the blaze initially had trouble getting inside the Kiss nightclub because "there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance," Guido Pedroso Melo, commander of the city's fire department, told the O Globo newspaper.
"It was terrible inside — it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another," said police inspector Sandro Meinerz. "We had to use trucks to remove them. It took about six hours to take the bodies away."
Authorities said band members who were on the stage when the fire broke out later talked with police and confirmed they used pyrotechnics during their show.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff arrived Sunday to visit the injured after cutting short her trip to a Latin American-European summit in Chile.
"It is a tragedy for all of us," said Rousseff, who began her political career in the state where the tragedy took place.
Sternberg, the Fordham professor, said the tragedy may be even harder on Brazilians who are currently out of the country.
“It’s important to remember that it was people who died from all over the country,” said Sternberg. “The result of all this is that Brazilians from all over Brazil are grieving. It’s also on the eve of Carnival and summer celebrations. It’s just a huge tragedy in a country that is very emotional.”
Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Immigration Center, said the Brazilian community in heartbroken.
“We have many members in our community that are very upset with that tragedy. Family members are really feeling sorry about this tragedy,” Tracy said. “Our heart goes out to them, we feel really bad for everyone.”
For Galvao the deaths evoke emotions she doesn’t want to think about.
“It’s devastating, “ said Galvao. “It’s going to stay with us for the rest of our lives.”
With reporting by the Associated Press.