At least 232 killed in Brazil nightclub blaze ‘after musician set fireworks off on stage’

Santa Maria march Brazil nightclub fire

Thousands march near the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil to commemorate the 231 victims of the fire and demand justice. Photograph: ZUMA/Rex Features

Tens of thousands of Brazilian mourners joined a procession through the streets of Santa Maria on Monday evening to commemorate the 231 victims of the weekend’s nightclub fire and to demand justice against those responsible.

Amid rising anger and concern at the lax safety regulations that resulted in the country’s deadliest fire in more than 50 years, the marchers – many wearing white clothes or carrying white flowers – paraded from Saldanha Marinho square to the sports centre that has been turned into a makeshift mausoleum.

Some carried mounted photographs of the dead. Others held banners with the names of the victims and slogans decrying the poor law enforcement that contributed to the high death toll.

“Why the regulations? Why pay taxes? What is the government doing?” read one carried by university students who had lost friends in the fire.

During the 90-minute procession, the participants recited prayers, sang anthems and chanted for justice when they passed what is left of the Kiss nightclub.

According to the police, 35,000 people participated in the march, which was organised on social networks as an expression of public sentiment about the disaster.

The authorities have promised to take note. In a speech on Monday, President Dilma Rousseff said administrators bore a heavy responsibility to prevent a recurrence of similar disasters.

“The pain I have witnessed is indescribable … we have a duty to ensure that it will never happen again,” she told a meeting of Brazilian mayors and ministers.

Police have detained four people in connection with the fire, including two of the owners of the nightclub and the band’s lead singer and production engineer. Anticipating future legal claims for compensation, state lawyers have also blocked the assets of the nightclub owners.

Criminal charges are also possible. The state prosecutor, Nilton Leonel Maria, told local media the owners have not been co-operating with the investigation and may have tampered with the evidence. CCTV surveillance footage that might have shed light on the incident is missing. It is uncertain if the cameras malfunctioned or the tapes were removed.

Fire investigators have identified a long catalogue of negligence. Fire extinguishers failed to work, there was a lack of emergency exits, no backup lighting, and security cameras were reportedly out of action. Unaware of the blaze, the club’s bouncers initially prevented people from escaping because they thought they were trying to leave without paying.

Such revelations have raised questions about other entertainment venues elsewhere in Brazil, particularly ahead of the World Cup and Olympics.

“So many young ones with all of their lives ahead of them,” Brazilian soccer legend Pelé wrote on Twitter. “The government has to make a priority of event security in this country!”

Several municipalities announced plans for new inspections and meetings with owners to review safety procedures. In Manaus two nightclubs were temporarily closed and fined after it was revealed their licenses had expired and their emergency equipment was substandard.

Valdeci Oliveira, a legislator in Rio Grande do Sul state, said he and his colleagues would seek to ban pyrotechnic displays in closed spaces such as nightclubs. “It won’t bring anybody back, but we’re going to introduce the bill,” Oliveira said on his Twitter feed.

Tighter controls are also being sought on polyurethane foam, which is widely used for soundproofing in clubs. This material has been banned in clubs in the US since a nightclub fire killed 100 people in Rhode Island in 2003.

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Witnesses recounted a scene of horror that was “like something out of a movie” after a fire at a nightclub in Brazil left at least 232 people dead.

The tragedy happened in the early hours of this morning during a student night at the Kiss nightclub in the town of Santa Maria, in Brazil’s southern Rio Grande do Sul state.

The blaze was started by a flare thrown from the stage and quickly swept through the club, witnesses said.

Survivors told of chaos as hundreds of partygoers scrambled for the exit as thick black smoke filled the club. Most of the victims died of asphyxiation or from being trampled in the panic, police said.

“Those who were far from the doors had simply no chance, said clubber Matheus Bortolotto, who went back into the club to find survivors.  “A girl died in my arms, I felt her heart stop beating. It was like something out of a movie. The ambulances simply could not cope with all the wounded.”

The fire started soon after 2.30am when between 400 and 500 people were in the club listening to one of the night’s two bands open their set.

A flare thrown from the stage appears to have ignited soundproofing foam on the ceiling. Previous fires in nightclubs – including one that killed 194 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2004 – also started this way.

Luiza Sousa, a civil police official in Santa Maria, said the blaze then spread “in seconds”.

“We looked up at the ceiling in front of the stage and saw it had caught fire,” clubber Luana Santos Silva, 23, told Brazil’s Globo TV. My sister grabbed me and dragged me out of the club.”

“Everyone was pushing and shoving…the fire started out small, but in a matter of seconds it exploded,” said Taynne Vendruscolo, another survivor.

Some witnesses claim there was only one exit – and that security guards initially blocked their escape.

Murilo de Toledo Tiecher, a 26-year-old medical student, said: “People were screaming ‘there’s a fire’ but the security guards didn’t budge and tried to keep the door shut. Five or six people knocked over one security guard and knocked down the door. It was the only exit.” Another 117 victims were last night being treated in hospital. Many survivors appear to have been in the VIP area close to the exit. Those nearer the stage are said to have had little chance of escape.

Photographer Fernanda Gomes Freire Bona, 23, who was in the VIP area on an assignment, said the fact she was able to spot the fire early saved her life. “As I was near the door, thank God, I ran and in five minutes I was outside,” she said.

Today, bodies were being removed from the club hours after the fire was extinguished. According to Brazil’s O Globo newspaper, the first truck carried 67 bodies and the second 70. Police cordoned off the site to prevent anguished relatives from streaming in.

The city declared 30 days of mourning. The Vice-Mayor, Jose Haidar Farret, said: “This university town has never experienced anything like this. Just yesterday we were here to watch the selection of our carnival queen and today, in the same sports centre, we are here collecting bodies.”

Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, cut short a visit to Chile, where she was taking part in a regional summit, to visit the scene of the tragedy. “It’s a tragedy for all of us, and I cannot continue here at the summit, because my priority is the Brazilian people,” she said.

A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: “As far as we are aware, there are no British nationals involved.”

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