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.
Porto Alegre, Brazil – This South American country, the top economic engine in Central and South America, hasn’t mourned this much in half a century.
The nation reels from the worst tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul state and one of the worst in the country’s history after 231 people died on Sunday in an inferno after the packed Kiss nightclub in the city of Santa Maria went up in flames.
The last similar tragedy took place 51 years ago, when a circus tent fire in Rio de Janeiro killed 503 people.
Beyond the dozens of victims killed in the tragedy, officials reported that 75 people were wounded and rushed to area hospitals. Carlos Henrique Casartelli, health director for neighboring city Porto Alegre, said that at least 12 of them were in critical condition.
Authorities continue to investigate the fire. So far, they’ve arrested three people — the club’s owner and two members of Gurizada Fandangueira, the band playing when the fire broke out. A fourth person has reportedly turned himself in to police, according to published reports.
"We want the case to be investigated exhaustively,” Tarson Genro, governor of Rio Grande do Sul, said at a news conference on Monday. “I hope that we come up with solutions, including new legislation at the municipal, state and federal levels.”
Rodrigo Martins, a guitarist for the band, described the chaos inside the nightclub to Globo TV network in an interview on Monday. At around 2:30 a.m. local time, Martins said the flames broke out minutes after they turned on the pyrotechnic machine that shoots out colored sparks. Martins said the roof caught on fire quickly afterward and then spread even quicker after the drummer tried to throw water on it. Security guards used an extinguisher but were not able to put out the flames.
The network featured witnesses describing a terrifying scene as security guards blocked people from leaving the club without first paying their bar tabs – while the place filled up with black smoke. Metal barriers trapped people just yards away from the exit. People panicked and, unable to see, they packed into bathrooms, thinking they were heading for the exit.
The tragedy has had a lingering impact in the largest country in Latin America. Many of the country’s hustle-and-bustle city streets have come to a standstill in the wake of the tragedy.
On Monday, shops around the country closed out of respect for the victim. The Campeonato Gaucho regional soccer championship and the music festival Planeta Atlantida — which in the past has gathered as many as 100,000 people — were cancelled.
The emotional toll has also tapped peoples’ philanthropic sides. Many local businesses are donating free services.
Transportation company Planalto offered free bus service from Porto Alegre to Santa Maria to those volunteering to help the affected community of Santa Maria recover. Hotels offered free rooms to relatives of the victims.
The disaster has generated a national debate over safety and security at night clubs across the country. Discussions and town halls are being held in various cities and towns, the focus being on what can be done to prevent future tragedies. Many people said clubs need to add more security guards and law enforcement needs to crack down on regulations.
"The clubs should be supervised by the municipalities and public agencies should be responsible for any violations,” Maria Dolci, an institutional coordinator at Proteste (Protest), an organization that defends consumer rights, told Fox News Latino. “The solution is not to create rules, but to guarantee that laws are enforced.”
So far, authorities have pointed out several irregularities at the Kiss club in Santa Maria. It only had one exit but regulations require at least two. Emergency lights were supposed to go on when the fire started — they didn’t. Emergency sprinklers were supposed to douse the fire – they didn’t. There was also an overcrowding issue: There were more than 1,000 people inside when maximum capacity was 900.
Additionally, the club was operating with an expired license — it was supposed to be renewed last summer. And lastly, authorities said the club lacked a plan for emergencies.
A 2011 security survey by Proteste, the Brazilian organization, found that only three of 12 clubs in Rio de Janeiro complied with basic safety requirements. In Sáo Paulo, two were not considered safe.
Police believe that pyrotechnics is to blame for the fire. Inspector Antonio Firmino, part of the team investigating the fire, told the Associated Press, it appeared the club's ceiling was covered with an insulating foam made from a combustible material that ignited with the pyrotechnics.
Valter Nagelstein, a councilman in the city of Porto Alegre, has a reputation for being hawkish on building permits and following appropriate regulations. Most night clubs don’t care if they’re breaking the law and don’t submit to inspections, Nagelstein told Fox News Latino.
“Club owners tend to think that is too easy to open a commercial establishment,” he said. “Citizens must make authorities enforce current laws — I don't think we need new ones.”
For its part, the service industry said Kiss club owners should assume responsibility for their part in the tragedy, but insisted all players in the tragedy need to be held accountable.
“Sometimes, business owners wait for very long to obtain licenses. But The bureaucracy is heavy. Of course, the good ones want more inspection over safety issues,” Fernanda Etchepare, regional director of the Brazilian Association of Bars and Restaurants, told Fox News Latino.
“Education and training is another issue. In Brazil, there’s inadequate emergency training — it's a cultural problem,” Etchepare added.
Luís Henrique Vieira is a freelance reporter based out of Brazil.