Neglect, errors to blame in Brazil nightclub fire

Mauro Hoffmann, right, co-owner of the Kiss nightclub, is escorted by police as he voluntarily surrenders at a police station in Santa Maria, Brazil.

Mauro Hoffmann, right, co-owner of the Kiss nightclub, is escorted by police as he voluntarily surrenders at a police station in Santa Maria, Brazil. Photo by The Associated Press.

SANTA MARIA, Brazil (AP) — There was no fire alarm. There were no sprinklers or fire escapes. And when a band member tried to put out a fire that had been started by pyrotechnics, the extinguisher didn’t work.

All the elements were in place for the tragedy at the Kiss nightclub early Sunday. The result was the world’s worst fire of its kind in more than a decade, with 231 people dead and this southern Brazilian college town in shock and mourning.

Funerals began on Monday, as reports continued to emerge about the accumulation of neglect and errors at the packed night spot.

According to state safety codes here, clubs should have one fire extinguisher every 1,500 square feet as well as multiple emergency exits. Limits on the number of people admitted are to be strictly respected. None appear to have happened at the Santa Maria nightclub.

“A problem in Brazil is that there is no control of how many people are admitted in a building,” said Joao Daniel Nunes, a civil engineer in nearby Porto Alegre. “They never are clearly stated, and nobody controls how many people enter these night clubs.”

Brazilian police said they detained three people in connection with the blaze, while the newspaper O Globo said on its website that a fourth person had surrendered to police.

More than 100 people remained hospitalized for smoke, local officials said.

National Health Minister Alexandre Padilha cautioned that the death toll could worsen dramatically. He said that 75 of those injured were in critical condition and could die.

The event raises questions of whether Brazilian authorities are up to the task of ensuring safety in such venues ahead of it hosting next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Witnesses said security guards who didn’t know about the blaze initially blocked people from leaving without paying their bills. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they’re allowed to leave. Many of the dead were found in the club’s two bathrooms, where the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.

Rodrigo Martins, a guitarist for the group Gurizada Fandangueira, told Globo TV network in an interview Monday that the flames broke out minutes after the deployment of a pyrotechnic machine that fans out colored sparks, at around 2:30 a.m. local time.

“I felt that something was falling from the roof and I looked up and I saw the fire was spreading, and I shouted ‘Look, it’s catching on fire, man, it’s catching fire,’” Martins said. “Then the drummer tried to throw water on it, and it looked like the fire spread more then. Then the security guards came with an extinguisher, tried to use it, but it didn’t work.”

He added that the club was packed and estimated the crowd at about 1,200-1,300 people.

Still, police were leaning toward the pyrotechnics as the likely cause of the tragedy. Police inspector Antonio Firmino, who’s part of the team investigating Sunday’s blaze, said it appeared the club’s ceiling was covered with an insulating foam made from a combustible material that ignited with the pyrotechnics. He said the number and state of the exits is under investigation but that it appeared that a second door was “inadequate,” as it was small and protected by bars that wouldn’t open.

The blaze was the deadliest in Brazil since at least 1961, when a fire that swept through a circus killed 503 people in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro.

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