Brazilian police detained an owner of the nightclub where 231 people perished in a weekend fire, the nation’s deadliest blaze since 1961.
Authorities are questioning the owner and two members of the band whose pyrotechnic display caused the fire, according to a statement from Rio Grande do Sul state, where the tragedy occurred. The club, in the city of Santa Maria, didn’t have permission to use fireworks, local District Attorney Joel Dutra said today in an interview.
Funeral services started to be held for the victims, most of whom died from inhaling smoke. The blaze started after a flare set fire to foam sound-proofing insulation, provoking a stampede toward the club’s only exit. Videos posted on YouTube showed a smoke-filled scene outside the building as firefighters and shirtless club-goers dragged people into the street.
“People were screaming and trying to run to the exit,” Luciene Louzeiro, a survivor of the incident who was near the stage when the fire started, said in a televised interview with Globo. “It was horrible. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Police will take the other owner of the Kiss nightclub into custody today, Dutra said.
The club’s fire permit expired last year, exposing owners and even city officials to possible criminal charges, said a press official for the municipal government, who asked not to be named because of internal policy. Kiss had all the “equipment necessary” to fight the fire, and management is working with authorities to investigate, the club said in statement distributed by law firm Kummel & Kummel.
At least 80 funerals are scheduled to take place today in Santa Maria, according to the municipal government. Brazilian families normally hold funeral services within a day of the death. Seventy-nine people remain hospitalized in local facilities, while 65 others were sent to nearby cities and towns for treatment, the Santa Maria government said on its website.
“I went to Santa Maria yesterday and the pain I witnessed was indescribable,” President Dilma Rousseff said in Brasilia while addressing a gathering of mayors elected last year. “I talk about that pain to remind us of the responsibility we as executives all have to our populations. In the face of that tragedy, we have the duty to ensure that tragedy never happens again.”
The club was hosting a party for a group of students from the Federal University of Santa Maria who were celebrating the end of their summer break. The band, Gurizada Fandangueira, was playing Brazilian folk music, known as forro, at the time the fire started. One of its members is among the victims, Globo reported, citing the band’s drummer, Eliel de Lima.
Most of the victims died from smoke inhalation, Andre Diefenbach, an official with the municipality’s police department, said in a telephone interview yesterday. Some may have perished as they attempted to reach the club’s doors, while others died after running into the bathroom, he said. Some of the club’s security guards initially stopped people from leaving the premises before paying, witnesses told local media. In Brazil, club-goers normally pay for their drinks on their way out.
One video shot amid the chaotic scene showed several bodies on the ground outside the club. Medical personnel checked them for signs of life and carried them away on stretchers. A woman can be heard shrieking in the background.
Authorities plan to carry out on-site visits of all nightclubs in the state to assure they meet safety standards, said Dutra. Officials will give owners of clubs that aren’t complying with regulations the choice to upgrade facilities or face closure, he said.
Investigators are focusing on the material of the club’s ceiling and the pyrotechnic display as the cause of the fire, Dutra said, adding that social networks are also being used to gather evidence.
Results of the investigation could prompt the Rio Grande do Sul state public prosecutor to recommend tougher legislation to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy, state Governor Tarso Genro said today, according to an e-mailed statement from his press office.
Genro yesterday called for a “profound, incisive and rapid police investigation with scientific and technical evidence so that we can find out the real causes of our tragedy,” according to a statement on his government’s website. “We are well-equipped to examine the evidence.”
The incident prompted Rousseff to cut short her participation in a summit of Latin American and European leaders in Santiago yesterday so she could return to Brazil. The president has declared three days of mourning across the country.
Rio Grande do Sul Attorney General Eduardo de Lima Veiga said he will oversee the first investigations into the causes of the fire.
There may have been as many as 900 people in the club, which has a capacity of about 2,000, said Diefenbach, the police official. Some security guards have been accused of not letting people leave before paying, Diefenbach said.
“I saw black smoke coming in my direction,” Fernanda Bona, who managed to escape the blaze, said in a televised interview with Globo. “Hundreds and hundreds of people were going for the same door, but because this area was so near the door not many people were able to leave. When I ran out, I didn’t have any idea how bad it was going to be. Ten minutes later I saw people, bodies, more and more people burnt, unable to walk.”
The incident is the worst fire in Brazil since 1961, when 503 people died at a circus in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo said. Brazil is seeking to improve its safety record before it hosts the soccer World Cup in 2014.
In 2004, a blaze at a rock concert in Buenos Aires killed 193, and the nightclub owner was convicted of manslaughter. In the U.S., fireworks led to the death of 100 people at a club in Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003 when a pyrotechnics malfunction ignited foam used as soundproofing on the club’s walls.
The Rhode Island incident brought changes to the state’s fire code. Officials banned pyrotechnics in most venues and local fire marshals were empowered to fine violators. Authorities ordered that sprinklers be installed in nightclubs and bars with a capacity of more than 100 people, and nightclub workers were required to receive fire safety training.
Santa Maria, with more than 250,000 residents, is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) southwest of Sao Paulo city. It has a young population because of its large number of universities.