A major fire killed 232 people at a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, making it the world’s deadliest nightclub fire in over a decade.
According to police and witnesses, the blaze may have started from a flare or firework lit by band members, prompting a stampede of panicked partygoers racing toward the exits.
Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello told the Associated Press by telephone that officials counted 232 bodies that had been brought for identification to a gymnasium in the city of Santa Maria, at the southern tip of Brazil near the borders with Argentina and Uruguay – and that another 117 people were being treated at hospitals, where President Dilma Roussef arrived to visit victims after cutting short his scheduled participation at a Latin American-European summit in Chile.
The recount lowered the toll from 245 earlier believed killed, according to Bastianello.
Television video showed smoke pouring out of the Kiss nightclub, with young male partygoers joining firefighters as they tried breaking windows and walls to free those trapped inside. The footage also injured and burned partygoers being carried away in the arms of friends.
One survivor told the Globo TV network about the chaos and how quickly the fire spread.
"There was so much smoke and fire, it was complete panic and it took a long time for people to get out, there were so many dead," survivor Luana Santos Silva said. She added that firefighters and ambulances responded quickly after the fire broke out, but that it spread too fast inside the packed club for them to help.
Most of the dead apparently suffocated, according to Dr. Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria who raced to the city's Caridade Hospital to help victims.
He said survivors, police and firefighters told him a flare set off by a band member set the ceiling's soundproofing ablaze. "Large amounts of toxic smoke quickly filled the room and I would say that at least 90 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation," Beltrame told The Associated Press by phone.
"The toxic smoke made people lose their sense of direction so they were unable to find their way to the exit. At least 50 bodies were found inside a bathroom. Apparently they confused the bathroom door with the exit door."
"In the hospital I saw desperate friends and relatives walking and running down the corridors looking for information. It was one of the saddest scenes I have ever witnessed," he added.
Rodrigo Moura, identified by the newspaper Diario de Santa Maria as a security guard at the club, said it was at its maximum capacity of between 1,000 and 2,000, and partygoers were pushing and shoving to escape.
Beltrame also said he was told the club was filled far past its capacity during a party for students at the university's department of agronomy. The event featured a group called Gurizada Fandangueira, which plays a driving mixture of local Brazilian country music styles. It was not immediately clear if the band members were among the victims.