Brazil Investigators Probe Overcrowding in Nightclub Blaze

Brazilian police are investigating whether faulty equipment and overcrowding may have increased the death toll during a nightclub blaze that killed at least 231 during a weekend concert.

Two of the nightclub owners were detained and are being questioned over eye witness accounts the club was filled beyond capacity and that fire extinguishers failed to work, Police Inspector Sandro Meinerz said. Two band members who have also been detained denied their fireworks caused the fire.

“The owners are alleging that they didn’t cause the fire, and that the musicians caused the fire,” Meinerz said from Santa Maria, the city in Brazil’s far south where the incident occurred. “The band is saying it wasn’t them, that the fire started because of an internal problem in the club.”

The fire started in the ceiling’s sound-proofing insulation and was “probably” caused by a flare, he said.

The club didn’t have permission to use fireworks and the four people detained will be charged with manslaughter at least, local District Attorney Joel Dutra said yesterday in a telephone interview.

“They all share in the responsibility,” said Dutra, who added that additional charges could be leveled against them and other suspects could be taken into custody. The mother and sister of one of the detained owners are cooperating with police and could be charged, Meinerz said.

Video Recordings

Video recordings from inside the club that could show if it was overcrowded can’t be found and admission tickets may have burned, Meinerz said. The owners said the recording equipment was ruined in the concert, he said.

More than 10,000 mourners dressed in white marched last night through the streets of Santa Maria, following the funerals of many of the victims.

The tragedy, Brazil’s deadliest fire in half a century, prompted legislators to urge stricter supervision and regulation of fire prevention, and for cities to step up nightclub inspections for fire safety equipment.

The president of Congress’ lower house, Marco Maia, announced the creation of a commission to monitor the investigation of the fire and requested an analysis of all relevant municipal, state and federal legislation.

“Starting from there, we are going to propose the consolidation of a single federal law,” Maia, a deputy from Rio Grande do Sul state where Santa Maria is located, said on his Twitter page.

Lessons, Duty

Videos posted on YouTube showed a smoke-filled scene outside the building as firefighters and shirtless people dragged others to the street. More than 100 people remain hospitalized, according to local officials.

President Dilma Rousseff led a minute’s silence yesterday at a gathering of mayors elected last year, and urged policy makers to draw lessons from the event.

“In the face of that tragedy, we have the duty to ensure that tragedy never happens again,” Rousseff said.

Ahead of next month’s Carnival celebrations, the calamity triggered authorities to redouble efforts to monitor safety standards. The governor of Parana state announced firemen will begin inspecting public properties next week. Local press reported similar responses across Brazil.

Most of the victims died from inhaling smoke as the blaze incited a stampede toward the club’s only exit, leaving hundreds trapped inside.

“I pulled more than 180 people out of the bathroom,” Edi Paulo Garcia, a captain in the military brigade that led rescue efforts, said in an interview with Globo. “They’d been trying to escape.”

Student Celebrations

The club, known as 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.

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. Among the dead were at least 101 of its students, the university said on its website.

Some of the club’s security guards initially stopped people from leaving the premises before paying, witnesses told local media. Meinerz said their actions are also being investigated.

Police Investigation

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.

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