Brazil club fire deaths spark World Cup fear

A victim of the fire in the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria city is carried from the scene. photograph: deivid dutra/ap

A victim of the fire in the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria city is carried from the scene. photograph: deivid dutra/ap

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

The devastating fire that swept through a nightclub in southern Brazil last month is still claiming victims.

Last week club bouncer Rodrigo Taugen became the 239th person to die when he succumbed to his injuries. Another 33 people remain in hospital, six on artificial respirators. Specialised medicine has had to be flown in from the US to try and combat the lethal effects of cyanide gas released when soundproofing foam on the ceiling caught fire.

So far only four people have been held by the team investigating the fire – the club’s two owners and two members of the band whose illegal pyrotechnic display is believed to have sparked the blaze.

Investigators say the club was overcrowded when the fire struck and fire extinguishers did not work. Having barely survived the fire himself, one of the owners has since tried to take his own life.

Within hours of the disaster it was revealed the permit to run the Kiss club had expired.

Corrupt officials

Despite one of the lead investigators saying there were “strong indications” that public officials were responsible for the disaster and promising that it would not just be “small guys” who would pay, no official has yet been detained.

The revelation that incompetent or corrupt officials allowed a death trap to operate as a nightclub has raised questions about Brazil’s ability to host the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games safely.

Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke sought to allay any fears: “What happened is the most horrible thing . . . But it has nothing to do with the security within the stadiums.”

But there is cause for concern. Six stadiums that will host this June’s Confederations Cup – a dress rehearsal for the World Cup – are months behind schedule and will only now be ready in April, reducing the time available for safety checks.

Risk experts working with authorities are confident the country will be ready. “The major infrastructure for the World Cup and Olympics will be safe for all using it,” said Prof Moacyr Duarte, an expert in risk assessment at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University’s Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute.

“Brazil has the capacity to host these events safely. The problem is in smaller cities where there is less managerial capacity and it seems a greater problem with corruption.”

That provides some reassurance. But the 500,000 fans expected for the World Cup will not spend all their time in stadiums under Fifa’s control.

Just this week the entrance of a new hospital in the poor northeastern state of Ceará collapsed in a thunderstorm less than a month after it opened, injuring two people. The state’s governor was already under investigation for using public funds to pay one of Brazil’s top singers €250,000 to perform at the opening of the hospital, which is located in his home town.

But corruption is not just a problem at municipal and state level as recent events in Brasília indicate.

President Dilma Rousseff is courting former allies thrown out of government in 2011 for corruption as she eyes their support ahead of her re-election campaign next year.

At the start of the month Renan Calheiros was voted in as president of the country’s senate, the post from which he quit in 2007 because of a corruption scandal. Then the revelation of a love child with a journalist exposed the dubious nature of his wealth after it was revealed he was using a lobbyist for a construction company to pay his child maintenance.

The state’s chief public prosecutor has filed charges against Mr Calheiros in relation to the scandal but, regardless, Mrs Rousseff’s base swept him back into power.

What the Kiss disaster and the return of Mr Calheiros confirm for millions of Brazilians is that there is something rotten and the heart of their state.