January 29, 2013

A steamy nightclub, then an inferno and scene of horror

By JULIANA BARBASSA The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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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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A security guard poked his head out and said there was a fight. A fraction of a second later, someone inside yelled "Fire!" The manager opened the doors and it was like opening the gates of hell, Schifelbain said.

Young men and women, mouths and eyes blackened with soot, clothes tattered, tumbled out screaming and crying. Some ran right over his taxi and two other cabs parked nearby, breaking mirrors, windshields, bashing in the doors. Horrified, he realized his cab was in their way, but couldn't move it because there were bodies hunched over it, collapsed in front of the tires, everywhere.

"The horror I saw in their faces, the terror, I'll never forget," he said. Two girls gasping for air climbed into his car, and as soon as he was able, he sped the six miles to the university hospital.

"One of them was crying all the way, screaming, 'My friend is dying,"' he said. "I did what I could. I don't know what happened to those girls."

A SEA OF BODIES

Inside the club, metal barriers meant to organize the lines of people entering and leaving became traps, corralling desperate patrons within yards of the exit. Bodies piled up against the grates, smothered and broken by the crushing mob.

Rizzi was stuck, unable to move, taking in gulps of smoke, feeling the gaseous mix burn his lungs.

He was within seconds of passing out, he said, when the whole frenzied mass suddenly lurched forward. The gates gave way, and everyone toppled over. Rizzi was lying on top of two or three people, several more heaped on top of him. He stuck out his hands, smacking them against the sidewalk and door. Someone pulled him to safety.

"To get out, I climbed, I pulled people's hair. I felt other people grabbing me, hitting me in the face," he said. "It's hard to describe the horror. But once I was outside, I recovered, and started pulling out the others."

Soon, he said, the street was a sea of bodies.

BATHROOM WAS NO EXIT

This was the scene 24-year-old Gabriel Barcellos Disconzi found when he arrived about 3:30 a.m., an hour after fire broke out. Wakened by a phone call from friends, the club regular immediately started pulling out bodies as smoke spewed so thick that entering the building was unthinkable.

Using sledgehammers and picks and their bare hands, he and other young men broke down the walls. Born and bred in Santa Maria, the outgoing young lawyer had dozens of friends and acquaintances inside.

"It was all so fast, there was no time for anything, no time for crying over a friend," he said. "It was dead people over here, living over there. Body after body after body."

Both Rizzi and Disconzi were there when they broke into one of the bathrooms and found a tableau of nearly indescribable desperation: It was crammed with bodies, tangled and tossed like dolls, piled as high as Rizzi's chest. In the darkness and confusion, concert-goers had rushed into the bathroom thinking it was an exit. They died, crushed and airless in the dark.

"I'll never forget the wall of people," Rizzi said.

Disconzi helped load them into a truck. Just the dead jammed into that bathroom filled an entire truck, he said.

By this time, the city was waking up to the dimension of the tragedy unfolding at its heart. Doctors, nurses and psychologists began arriving, giving immediate assistance -- checking eyes and respiratory passages, stabilizing the burned, resuscitating those whose hearts had stopped or lungs had failed because of the smoke. The living they loaded into ambulances. The mounting number of dead went into trucks.

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