Police say outdoor flare likely started Brazil fire
Girls cry in front of a makeshift memorial Tuesday outside the Kiss nightclub where a fire killed 234 people in Santa Maria, Brazil, early Sunday.
Mauro Hoffman, co-owner of the Kiss nightclub, is taken into custody Tuesday by police in Santa Maria.
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SANTA MARIA, Brazil -- Penny-pinching by a band known for its onstage pyrotechnic displays may have cost more than 230 people their lives at a nightclub in southern Brazil, according to a police inspector leading the investigation into the deadly weekend blaze.
Inspector Marcelo Arigony told reporters at a news conference Tuesday that members of the band knowingly purchased flares meant for outdoor use because they cost a mere $1.25 a piece, compared with the $35 price tag for an indoor flare.
"The flare lit was for outdoor use only, and the people who lit them know that," said Inspector Arigony, adding that members of the group acknowledged regularly opting for the less-expensive flares. "They chose to buy those because they were cheaper than those that can be used indoors."
Inspector Arigony, whose cousin died in the fire, added: "The pyrotechnics were part of their show; the guys even wore gloves onstage, so they wouldn't burn their hands."
The repercussions of the band's choice to use flares continued to send shock waves through Santa Maria, a college town of 260,000 people that has been stunned by the tragedy early Sunday morning in the Kiss nightclub.
The Rio Grande do Sul state forensics department raised the death toll Tuesday from 231 to 234 to account for three victims who did not appear on the original list of the dead. Authorities say more than 120 people remain hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns, with dozens of them in critical condition.
The blaze began around 2:30 a.m. local time, during a performance by Gurizada Fandangueira, a country music band that had made use of pyrotechnics a trademark of their shows. The band's guitarist told media representatives that the 6,650 square-foot club was packed with an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 people. Police have said the capacity for a club of that size is under 700 people.
Police said the club's ceiling was covered with insulating foam made from a combustible material that appeared to have ignited after it came in contact with a spark from a flare lit during the performance. After a fire extinguisher malfunctioned, the blaze spread throughout the packed club at lightning speed, emitting a thick, toxic smoke.
Because Kiss apparently had neither an alarm nor a sprinkler system and only one working exit, the crowd was left to search desperately for a way out. About 50 victims were found in the club's two bathrooms. Investigator Arigony said people headed to the bathrooms because the only lights in the dark club were coming from there, and amid the smoke, patrons mistook their doors for exits.
The foam, which emitted a toxic gas, was not proper soundproofing equipment and was likely used only to cut down on echo inside the club, Inspector Arigony said. He added that a full analysis of the foam was ongoing. The malfunctioning fire extinguisher was not legal, he said, and the club's operating license had expired in August. "There were diverse irregularities," the inspector said. "Any child could have seen that this establishment should not have been open."
Outraged locals, mostly young people, marched Tuesday through Santa Maria to demand justice for the dead, an unusual move in a nation where public protests are rare. The demonstration interrupted the police news conference, even as Inspector Arigony pledged to investigate everyone involved in the tragedy -- including authorities charged with making sure that such establishments are up to code, such as firefighters and city officials.
"There could have been an administrative failure in the mayor's office or with the firefighters," he said. "We have no proof, but we will investigate, we will look into everything."
No charges have been filed. Under Brazilian law, prosecutors can file charges only after police complete their investigation, which in this case could take 30 days. Prosecutors have said manslaughter charges could be filed.
The fire inspired nationwide action, and several mayors said they would crack down on nightclubs and other venues in their cities. The government of the nation's biggest city, Sao Paulo, promised tougher security regulations for nightclubs and other places where many people gather. The mayor of the city of Americana, Sao Paulo state, ordered the temporary shutdown of 10 of the city's nightclubs. Mayor Diego de Nadai suspended operating permits of the nightclubs pending inspections of fire and accident prevention measures in place, local media reported.
The Folha de S. Paulo newspaper reported that in Manaus, nightclubs with empty fire extinguishers and unmarked emergency exits have been shut down and fined. And in Rio de Janeiro, a consumer complaint hotline has received more than 60 calls since Sunday's tragedy denouncing hazardous conditions at night spots, theaters, supermarkets, schools, hospitals and shopping malls around the state. Blocked emergency exits and nonexistent fire alarms and extinguishers top the list of most common complaints.
Both club owners were provisionally detained, along with two of the band members. A judge froze the assets of the club's owners, pending the investigation.
The fire appeared to mark a possible turning point for a country that has long turned a blind eye to safety and infrastructure concerns. The disaster, the worst fire of its kind in more than a decade, has also raised questions about whether Brazilian authorities are up to the task of ensuring safety in such venues as the nation prepares to host next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
First Published January 30, 2013 12:00 am