At least 233 people died in a fire that swept through a nightclub in a university city in southern Brazil on Sunday. The bodies of the young college students were found piled up just inside the entrance of the Kiss nightclub, among more than 230 people who died in a cloud of toxic smoke after a blaze enveloped the crowded locale within seconds and set off a panic.
Many of the victims were under 20 years old, including some minors.
Here’s a recap of what happened on that fateful night in Brazil:
Guitarist Rodrigo Martin was preparing to launch into the sixth song of his band’s set when he saw embers fall. The acoustic foam insulation on the ceiling of the KISS nightclub in the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria was on fire, and it was beginning to spread, reported CNN.
In front of him, a sea of people who only moments earlier were dancing and singing along to the country-pop sounds of his band Gurizada Fandangueira began to realize something was wrong.
The fast-moving fire and toxic smoke created by the burning foam sound insulation material on the ceiling engulfed the club within seconds. Authorities said band members who were on the stage when the fire broke out later talked with police and confirmed they used pyrotechnics during their show.
Suddenly, concert-goers were stampeding toward the club’s only exit, pushing and shoving each other trying to get out.
Then, according to investigators and witnesses, somebody fell in the narrow, dark hallway that led to the windowless exit.
Survivors said security guards briefly tried to block people from exiting the club. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they are allowed to leave. “It was chaotic and it doesn’t seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died,” he told The Associated Press.
Later, firefighters responding to the blaze initially had trouble entering the club because “there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance,” Guido Pedroso Melo, commander of the city’s fire department, told the O Globo newspaper.
Television images from the city of about 260,000 people showed black smoke billowing out of the nightclub as shirtless young men who had attended a university party there, joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at the hot-pink exterior walls, trying to reach those trapped inside.
Bodies of the dead and injured were strewn in the street and panicked screams filled the air as medics tried to help. There was little to be done; officials said most of those who died were suffocated by smoke within minutes.
Within hours the community gym was a horror scene, with body after body lined up on the floor, partially covered with black plastic as family members identified kin.
Outside the gym police held up personal objects — a black purse, a blue high-heeled shoe — as people seeking information on loved ones crowded around, hoping not to recognize anything being shown them.
The gathering was a party organized by students from several academic departments from the Federal University of Santa Maria. Such organized university parties are common throughout Brazil.
Survivor Michele Pereira told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit some sort of flare. “The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward,” she said. “At that point, the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak, but in a matter of seconds it spread.”
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins told Radio Gaucha that the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, started playing at 2:15 a.m. “and we had played around five songs when I looked up and noticed the roof was burning.”
“It might have happened because of the Sputnik, the machine we use to create a luminous effect with sparks. It’s harmless, we never had any trouble with it,” he said. “When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher, the singer tried to use it but it wasn’t working.”
He confirmed that accordion player Danilo Jacques, 28, died, while the five other members made it out safely.
“It was terrible inside — it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another,” said police inspector Sandro Meinerz. “We had to use trucks to remove them. It took about six hours to take the bodies away.”
Meinerz, who coordinated the investigation at the nightclub, said one band member died after escaping because he returned inside the burning building to save his accordion. The other band members escaped alive because they were the first to notice the fire.
Most victims died from smoke inhalation rather than burns. Many of the dead, about equally split between young men and women, were also found in the club’s two bathrooms, where they fled apparently because the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.
It was the last weekend of Brazil’s summer break for many of the students, and the KISS nightclub was packed with young people — many of whom attended one of a number of universities and colleges in Santa Maria.
Of the dead, 101 were students at the Federal University of Santa Maria.
Another 120 remained hospitalized Monday morning, 79 in critical condition, authorities said.
There were questions about the club’s operating license. Police said it was in the process of being renewed, but it was not clear if it was illegal for the business to be open. A single entrance area about the size of five door spaces was used both as an entrance and an exit.
Sunday’s fire appeared to be the worst at a nightclub since December 2000, when a welding accident reportedly set off a fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309. Similar circumstances led to a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people in the United States. Pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling of a Rhode Island music venue.
Brazil has declared three days of national mourning for the fire tragedy whereas in Santa maria a 30-day mourning was declared.
Also, BBC reported that as a sign of mourning, a ceremony due in Brazil’s capital on Monday to mark 500 days to Football World Cup 2014, was cancelled.
With inputs from the Associated Press