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Rapid inquiry urged in Brazil fire

Published: January 28, 2013 | 7:26 am
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Brazilian authorities called for a rapid investigation into a fire that killed hundreds when it swept through a nightclub packed with students in the south of Brazil in the early hours of yesterday morning.

The fire brought President Dilma Rousseff to the verge of tears and has sent the nation into mourning.

Officials are planning a “profound, incisive and rapid police investigation with scientific and technical evidence so that we can find out the real causes of our tragedy,” Tarso Genro, governor of Rio Grande do Sul, where the nightclub is located, said yesterday in a statement on a government website. “We are well-equipped to examine the evidence.”

The number of those killed has been confirmed so far at 233.

According to several survivors, the fire, which engulfed the Kiss nightclub in the university town of Santa Maria, started when the band on stage lit flares as part of their act.

“Suddenly they stopped the show and held up the flares,” Michele Pereira told the Folha de S Paulo newspaper. She said she was in front of the stage when the fire started. “The roof caught fire, it was nothing at first, but in a question of seconds it started to spread.”

The venue quickly filled with toxic smoke, causing panic and a stampede for the exit. Footage recorded outside the club showed the desperate efforts of firemen and revellers to break open windows and punch holes in the club’s walls to get those trapped inside to safety.

Engineering student Matheus Abaide told Folha de S Paulo that the club was packed when the fire started: “You could not move inside.”

He and his brother survived but one of his friends was among the victims.

Security on door

Another witness told local station Rádio Gaúcha that at first the club’s door security did not realise the building was on fire and would only let those who had paid their bill to leave. In Brazil most clubs issue cards to patrons which they use to order drinks, settling their account at the door on the way out.

According to the local fire service, most of the dead suffocated from smoke inhalation or were trampled to death. The number of fatalities had reached 233 by yesterday afternoon, with dozens more being treated for injuries. Many were attending a party organised for students of the Federal University of Santa Maria.

Among the dead was the accordion player from the band that was playing when the fire started. The group, Gurizada Fandangueira, played at the club once a month. Drummer Eliel de Lima told the Globo news network that flares usually formed part of the act.

“It was never a problem,” he said. “A security guard arrived with a fire extinguisher, tried to put out the fire but the extinguisher didn’t work.”

Yesterday regional fire chief Moisés da Silva Fuchs revealed that the club’s permit to operate had expired last August, raising questions for local authorities about why it was still open. To get a permit a venue must pass a fire inspection.

Police said one of the owners of the club had turned up at the local police station in fear of his life. “He is afraid of being lynched,” police officer Marcelo Arigony told the Terra news agency.

President’s reaction

As the death toll climbed from dozens to hundreds Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff cut short her participation at a summit of regional and EU leaders in Santiago to fly to Santa Maria. Speaking to journalists before leaving, a tearful Ms Rousseff described the disaster as “a tragedy for all of us”.

On arrival in the town she visited survivors and comforted relatives of victims.

Yesterday’s tragedy in Santa Maria is similar to the 2004 Cromañón nightclub disaster in Buenos Aires. It also started when a flare inside the venue set the ceiling on fire, killing 194 people.

In the Cromañón case it was later revealed the club had received a city permit to operate despite lacking basic fire prevention measures such as fire extinguishers. The revelations led to the impeachment of Buenos Aires’s then mayor and the sentencing of the club’s owner to 20 years in jail.

Bloomberg

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