Catastrophe waiting to happen

Police officers enter the nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil. The crowded club had no fire alarm, sprinklers, or emergency exits.
Police officers enter the nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil. The crowded club had no fire alarm, sprinklers, or emergency exits. (FELIPE DANA / Associated Press)

Basic safety measures were lacking before fire erupted at the Kiss nightclub in Brazil, killing 231 people.

Posted: January 29, 2013

SANTA MARIA, Brazil - There was no fire alarm. There were no sprinklers or fire escapes. And when a band member tried to put out a fire that had been started by pyrotechnics, the extinguisher didn't work.

All the elements were in place for the tragedy at the Kiss nightclub early Sunday. The result was the world's worst fire of its kind in more than a decade, with 231 people dead and this southern Brazilian college town in shock and mourning.

Funerals began on Monday, as reports continued to emerge about the accumulation of neglect and errors at the packed night spot.

According to state safety codes here, clubs should have one fire extinguisher every 1,500 square feet as well as multiple emergency exits. Limits on the number of people admitted are to be strictly respected. None of that appears to have happened at the Santa Maria nightclub.

"A problem in Brazil is that there is no control of how many people are admitted in a building," said Joao Daniel Nunes, a civil engineer in nearby Porto Alegre. "They never are clearly stated, and nobody controls how many people enter these night clubs."

Santa Maria's mayor, Jose Fortunati, told Radio Gaucha that dozens of night spots were closed last year for failing to meet norms.

"At that time, we had lots of protest from those who frequented them, but I think that today people understand it better and that at times hard stands must be taken so that steps are taken to not put people's lives at risk," Fortunati said.

Brazilian police said they detained three people in connection with the blaze, while the newspaper O Globo said on its website that a fourth person had surrendered to police. Police Inspector Ranolfo Vieira Jr. declined to identify those detained, but the Brazilian newspaper Zero Hora quotes lawyer Jader Marques saying his client Elissandro Spohr, a co-owner of the club, had been held. Globo reported that the fourth person detained was another club co-owner. G1, Globo Television's Internet portal, reported that Spohr acknowledged the club's operating license was not up to date but said the pyrotechnics show started the blaze.

Zero Hora said police also detained two members of the band. The band's guitarist told Brazilian media he saw flames lick the ceiling after the group's spark machine was deployed.

National Health Minister Alexandre Padilha cautioned that the death toll could worsen dramatically. Speaking to media in Santa Maria, he said that 75 of those injured were in critical condition and could die.

However, Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a doctor helping coordinate the emergency response, said he was optimistic that at least some of those injured would pull through.

The event raises questions of whether Brazilian authorities are up to the task of ensuring safety in such venues ahead of it hosting next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

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