Frenzied scene as toll tops 200 in Brazil blaze

RIO DE JANEIRO — A fire ignited by a flare from a band’s pyrotechnics spectacle swept through a nightclub filled with hundreds of university students early on Sunday morning in Santa Maria, a city in southern Brazil, killing at least 233 people, officials said.

Health workers hauled bodies from the club, called Kiss, to hospitals in Santa Maria all through Sunday morning. Some of the survivors were taken to the nearby city of Porto Alegre to be treated for burns. Valdeci Oliveira, a local legislator, told reporters that he saw piles of bodies in the nightclub’s bathrooms.

Col. Guido Pedroso de Melo, the commander of the city’s Fire Department, said in televised remarks that security guards had blocked the exit, which intensified the panic as people in the club stampeded to the doors.

Survivors described a frenzied and violent rush for the main exit. Murilo de Toledo Tiecher, 26, a medical student at the University of Caxias do Sul who was at the club, said he and his friends had to push through a crush of people to get around a metal barrier that was preventing the crowd from spilling out into the street. He said some people became trapped after they rushed into the bathroom near the exit, thinking it was a way out. Once he was outside, he said, he tried to pull others to safety.

“If we saw a hand or a head, we’d start pulling the person out by the hair,” he said in a telephone interview. “People were burned; some didn’t even have clothes.”

The disaster ranks among the deadliest of nightclub fires, comparable to the 2003 blaze in Rhode Island that killed 100 people, one in 2004 in Buenos Aires in which 194 were killed, and a fire at a club in China in 2000 in which 309 people died.

The disaster in Santa Maria, which is in the relatively prosperous state of Rio Grande do Sul, shocked the country. President Dilma Rousseff canceled appointments at a summit meeting in Chile to travel to Santa Maria, a city of about 260,000 residents that is known for its cluster of universities.

The circumstances surrounding the blaze, including the use of pyrotechnics and the reports of the blocked exit, are expected to raise questions about whether the club’s owners had been negligent. While it was not clear why patrons were initially not allowed to escape, it is common across Brazil for nightclubs and bars to have customers pay their entire tab upon leaving, instead of on a per-drink basis.

Read the entire story in The New York Times.

By Simon Romero

Jill Langlois contributed reporting from São Paulo, Brazil, and Michael Schwirtz from New York.

Originally published in The New York Times on January 28, 2013. Two followup stories were also published in the Times on January 29 and January 30.

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