January 29, 2013

A steamy nightclub, then an inferno and scene of horror

By JULIANA BARBASSA The Associated Press

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A man cries Monday at the burial of a victim who died in the nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil.

The Associated Press

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A girl cries during a march in a plaza near the Kiss nightclub honoring the victims of Sunday’s fatal fire inside the club in Santa Maria, Brazil, on Monday.

The Associated Press

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SANTA MARIA, Brazil - The nightclub Kiss was hot, steamy from the press of beer-fueled bodies dancing close. The Brazilian country band on stage was whipping the young crowd into a frenzy, launching into another fast-paced, accordion-driven tune and lighting flares that spewed silver sparks into the air.

It was another Saturday night in Santa Maria, a university town of about 260,000 on Brazil's southernmost tip.

Then, in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, it turned into a scene of indescribable horror as sparks lit a fire in the soundproofing material above the stage, churning out black, toxic smoke as flames raced through the former beer warehouse, killing 231 people.

"I was right there, so even though I was far from the door, at least I realized something was wrong," said Rodrigo Rizzi, a first-year nursing student who was next to the stage when the fire broke out and watched the tragedy unfold, horror-stricken and helpless.

"Others, who couldn't see the stage, never had a chance. They never saw it coming."

FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE

There was no fire alarm, no sprinklers, no fire escape. In violation of state safety codes, fire extinguishers were not spaced every 1,500 square feet, and there was only one exit. As the city buried its young Monday, questions were raised about whether Brazil is up to the task of ensuring the safety in venues for the World Cup next year, and the Olympics in 2016. Four people were arrested for questioning, including two band members and the nightclub's co-owner.

Rizzi hadn't even planned on going out that night. He was talked into it by friends and knew dozens at the club. He said the first sign of a problem was insulation dripping above the stage.

The flames at that point were barely noticeable, just tiny tongues lapping at the flammable material. The band's singer, Marcelo dos Santos, noticed it and tried to put out the smoldering embers by squirting water from a bottle.

The show kept going. Then, as the ceiling continued to ooze hot molten foam, dos Santos grabbed the drummer's water bottle and aimed it at the fire. That didn't work either, Rizzi said. A security guard handed the band leader a fire extinguisher. He aimed, but nothing came out; the extinguisher didn't work.

Rizzi said the singer motioned to the band to get out. Rizzi calmly made his way to the door -- the club's only exit -- still thinking it was a small fire that would quickly be controlled.

THE GATES OF HELL

The cavernous building was divided into several sections, including a pub and a VIP lounge -- and hundreds of the college students and teenagers crammed in couldn't see the stage. They continued to drink and dance, unaware of the danger spreading above them.

Then, the place became an inferno.

The band members who headed straight for the door lived. One, Danilo Brauner, went back to get his accordion, and never made it out.

The air turned dense and dark with smoke; there was no light, nothing pointing to the single exit. Rizzi found himself clawing through a panicked crowd that surged blindly toward the door.

"I was halfway across the floor, I could see the door, but the air turned black with this thick smoke," he said. "I couldn't breathe. People started to panic and run toward the door. They were falling, screaming, pulling at each other."

The manager, meanwhile, was outside dealing with a drunk and belligerent young man. No one there had any inkling of the desperate scene unfolding just beyond Kiss' black, sound-proof double doors, said taxi driver Edson Schifelbain, who was in his car, waiting for passengers.

(Continued on page 2)

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