In a horrific and developing tragedy reminiscent of the nightclub fire at the Station Club in Rhode Island in 2003, where 100 people died after the pyrotechnics of the performing band, Great White, set the packed room on fire, a nightclub in the college town of Santa Maria in southern Brazil was set ablaze, purportedly also by a flare or firework set off by a band member. But this circumstance, at least 245 people have been reported killed, with another 200 injured. Those numbers are likely to change.
The media that quickly arrived on the scene found pandemonium and chaos, capturing terrifying images of the building in flames and panicked and injured club goers racing from the Boate Kiss nightclub, some with burned friends in their arms. As Huffington Post reports:
Television images showed smoke pouring out of the Kiss nightclub as shirtless, young male partygoers joined firefighters in wielding axes and sledgehammers, pounding at windows and walls to break through to those trapped inside. Teenagers sprinted from the scene desperately trying to find help – others carried injured and burned friends away in their arms.
“There was so much smoke and fire, it was complete panic and it took a long time for people to get out, there were so many dead,” survivor Luana Santos Silva told the Globo TV network.
Silva added that firefighters and ambulances responded quickly after the fire broke out, but that it spread too fast inside the packed club for them to help.
Michele Pereira, another survivor, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage and that the fire broke out after band members lit flares.
“The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward. At that point the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak but in a matter of seconds it spread,” Pereira said.
While there is some confusion over the number of dead, a tally likely to grow as more bodies are retrieved from the ruins, the initial reports started at 90 then quickly doubled; as of this writing, police have told local media that at least 245 bodies have been brought to a gymnasium in the city of Santa Maria (near the southern tip of Brazil), which is a major university town of about 250 thousand. Many of the injured suffered from smoke inhalation and some injuries have been reported as critical. And while the club was reported full, with a capacity of anywhere between 1000 and 2000 people, it’s been reported that only 500 were present when the fire began. From Reuters:
An estimated 500 people were in the Boate Kiss nightclub when the fire broke out early on Sunday, and many were unable to find the exits as dark smoke quickly filled the room. At least one exit was locked, trapping hundreds inside to die, many from asphyxiation as they inhaled smoke, police said.
“When I looked around, all I saw were dead bodies all around, lying on the floor. It was macabre,” survivor Taynne Vendrusculo told GloboNews TV. “It all happened so fast. Both the panic and the fire spread rapidly, in seconds.”
According to the Huffington Post, other nightclub fires have also resulted in tragic loss: a welding accident in Luoyana, China set off a fire on Christmas, 2000, killing 309. One in Buenos Aires in 2004 was also started by band pyrotechnics and killed 194. In 2009, an indoor fireworks display set off decorations at a club in Perm, Russia, killing 152, and, of course, the infamous Station fire in Rhode Island, where 100 lives were lost.
As is clear in at least four of the listed nightclub fires (including this current one in Brazil), pyrotechnics set off by either the band or club personnel inside of the club were the sparking device for a conflagration that got completely out of control, causing massive death totals. In the case of the Station fire in Rhode Island, liability was quickly assessed as belonging to both the band, 80s “hair band,” Great White, and the club owners, whose building was found to be out of fire compliance. The band’s manager, Daniel Biechele, was found liable for setting off the stage fireworks in the small club, but his trial was circumvented when he pled guilt to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, done in an effort, he said, to “bring peace, I want this to be over.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, released on parole in March of 2008. The nightclub owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, pled “no contest”; Michael was given 15 years (released in 2009 on good behavior) and Jeffrey was given a 10-year suspended sentence. In 2008, the band Great White offer $1 million to the families and survivors, the maximum allowed by their insurance. [Source]
Given the very similar circumstances of this latest fire at Boate Kiss nightclub, it is likely similar liability will be assessed, with criminal and civil lawsuits to follow. So far, one of the nightclub owners has surrendered to police.
In one rather horrifying video report by a Time Magazine correspondent to CBC News Network, it is said that people were prevented from leaving the club after the fire started because, as is customary in Brazilian clubs, patrons are allowed to keep a tab rather than paying per drink. Apparently security personnel locked doors to prevent mass exodus before those tabs were closed. According the reporter, bodies were found piled near the locked doors. It was also reported that band members who started the blaze did try to put the fire out but fire extinguishers didn’t work and it was later discovered the club’s fire certificate had expired in August in 2012.
See video for full report:
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff cut short her official business in Chile to return to the scene, a state, coincidentally, where she started her political career. She gave a tearful televised statement before departing:
“We are trying to mobilize all possible resources to help in the rescue efforts,” she said. “All I can say at the moment is that my feelings are of deep sorrow.”