233 die in Brazil nightclub fire
BY JULIANA BARBASSA and MARCO SIBAJA, Associated Press
SANTA MARIA, Brazil -- A fast-moving fire roared through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, within seconds filling the building with flames and a thick, toxic smoke that killed 233 panicked partygoers who gasped for breath and fought in a stampede to escape.
Firefighters responding to the blaze at first had trouble getting inside the Kiss nightclub because bodies partially blocked the club's entryway.
Witnesses said a flare or firework lit by band members started the blaze in Santa Maria, a university city of about 260,000 people. Officials at a news conference said the cause was still under investigation -- though police inspector Sandro Meinerz told the Agencia Estado news agency the band was to blame for a pyrotechnics show and that manslaughter charges could be filed.
Television images showed black smoke billowing out of the Kiss nightclub as shirtless young men who had attended a university party joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at windows and hot-pink exterior walls to free those trapped inside.
Officials said most of those who died were suffocated by smoke within minutes.
Guido Pedroso Melo, commander of the city's fire department, told the O Globo newspaper that firefighters had a hard time getting inside the club because "there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance."
Many of the victims were under 20 years old.
Survivor, Michele Pereira, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit flares that started the conflagration.
"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."
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.
"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.
Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by telephone that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim.
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.