First funerals held after Brazil fire
Funerals have been held for some of the 231 victims of a Brazilian nightclub fire that has raised broader questions about the safety standards of the next host of the World Cup and Olympics.
As the names of the dead were released, the government declared three days of mourning. A ceremony marking 500 days to the World Cup was cancelled.
Doctors said 80 survivors remained in serious condition, some with burns, many with lung damage caused by inhaling toxic fumes, and others with injuries sustained in the stampede to escape from the blaze in the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria.
“It is a tragedy for all of us,” said the president, Dilma Rousseff, who cut short meetings in Chile to fly to Santa Maria - her home town - to visit survivors and console those who lost loved ones.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, released a statement expressing his “condolences to the families and friends of those whose lives were lost, as well as to the Brazilian government and people at large at this time of national mourning”.
Most of those inside the club were young students. Twitter and Facebook pages showed scenes of revelry, then calls for help when the fire began, then anxious inquiries from friends, and finally words of grief and remembrance as the identities of the dead were confirmed.
Along with the lamentation there was a growing awareness of the lax safety standards - fireworks on stage, an expired operating licence, overcrowding, poorly maintained emergency equipment, only one exit - that cost so many lives.
Witnesses said the venue was filled beyond capacity for a performance by a band, Gurizada Fananguiera, who use pyrotechnics for their show. Fire department officials confirmed that the blaze began when the performers raised three flares, one of which ignited foam-like soundproofing material on the ceiling.
With only one exit, there was a panic to escape. Several witnesses quoted in the local media said security guards initially blocked the way out because they mistook the stampede for a fight and feared customers were trying to leave without paying. The custom in many Brazilian clubs of running up a tab and paying on the way out may need to be reviewed.
Emergency contingencies were almost non-existent. A security guard tried to tackle the fire with an extinguisher but it malfunctioned. Amid the smoke and confusion many people appear to have mistaken toilet signs for emergency exits, according to firemen who found victims piled up in the bathroom.
Officials said the club’s operating licence expired in July. The owner has been questioned by police.
The lack of safety measures at the club was far from exceptional - for Brazil or elsewhere. There were death tolls of 100 or more in entertainment venue fires in Rhode Island in 2003, Argentina in 2004 and Russia in 2009.
But as the second deadliest fire in Brazil’s history, the tragedy in Santa Maria looks likely to provoke some soul-searching about the dangers of inadequate investment in infrastructure, particularly before the influx of millions for the world’s two biggest sporting events.
Many have already begun drawing a connection to wider systemic problems. The opinion writer Igor Gielow wrote that it was sad and symbolic that the tragedy occurred on the same day that the first of the venues renovated for the World Cup - the Castelao stadium in Fortaleza - staged its first game.
“This was intended to inaugurate a new phase in mass entertainment in Brazil and to sell the idea that our country has the organisational capacity to host large, global events, but reality showed its face at the nightclub Kiss,” he wrote in the Folha de Sao Paulo,
Other speculated about possible corruption or lax oversight. Reinaldo Azevedo, writing on the Veja news website, asked why the fire department had previously approved a venue with only one exit. “Our grief must also exercise wrath,” he wrote. “This is not a tragedy manufactured by chance. It is the work of a chain of negligence.”
President Michael D. Higgins sent a message of condolence today to the Brazilian president.
"From my recent visit to Brazil, I am very conscious that a large part of its spirit and energy derives from its youth. I know too how much president Rousseff values young people and the role they will play in the future development of Brazil. The fact that over 230 young people lost their lives during what should have been an enjoyable social occasion is deeply
upsetting – both for the Brazilian people and for their many friends abroad," he said.
"On my own behalf and behalf of the Irish people, I send my deepest sympathies to President Rousseff, to the families of the victims and to the people of Brazil, especially the Brazilian community who live here in Ireland."
Additonal reporting: Guardian Service