A massive blaze at a nightclub in Brazil killed more than 230 people and left relatives desperately searching for loved ones as horrific accounts emerged of a tragic rush to escape the inferno.
Shocked survivors, mostly science students in the southern University town of Santa Maria, described a traumatic scene of blocked exits and rising flames, with scores of revelers being trampled or passing out from smoke inhalation.
Reports said the fire broke out around 2:00 am (0400 GMT) when the nightclub was hosting a university party.
A band’s malfunctioning pyrotechnics triggered the fire early on Sunday, witnesses said, in an incident likely to raise concerns about public safety as Brazil readies to host the football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.
The fire regulations permit for the Kiss nightclub expired in August 2011, local media reported, citing the head of the state’s fire department.
“I saw victims who had one side of their face melted,” Max Muller, who was walking by and started to film some of the chaotic early morning scenes from outside the club, told AFP.
“I am traumatized. It is hard to forget what I saw. People who were trying to get out who stopped to give other people CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) — except they didn’t know how to do it, and they were breaking people’s bones.
“It is horrible to see so many dead people, kids, on the ground; people crying, other people throwing up, who can’t breathe. Some were ripping people’s clothes off to do CPR but had no idea what they were doing,” he recalled.
Santa Maria is located west of Porto Alegre, one of the World Cup host cities. The fire led Brazil to quickly postpone an event dubbed “500 Days until World Cup-2014,” planned for Monday in the federal capital Brasilia.
Authorities said 233 people had been killed, with 116 more injured. Health Minister Alexandre Padilha told a news conference the government’s priority was “saving the lives that we still can save.”
The tragedy appeared to be the world’s deadliest such blaze in more than a decade, since a fire at a shopping center and discotheque in the central Chinese city of Luoyang killed more than 300 people in 2000.
“It was sheer horror. I lost a very dear friend. The emergency exits did not work, and then I lost my friend in the confusion,” Mattheus Bortolotto, a young dentist, told local television.
“Then a girl died in my arms. I felt her heart stop beating. I had only ever seen something like that in the movies.”
The pandemonium from inside the club soon spread to outside the building.
“The metal barriers they used to keep people in line on their way in, ended up blocking people from getting out,” Bortolotto said. “People were bumping into each other, crushing each other, falling down.
“And the people who were at the back of the club were simply trapped.”
Survivor Michelle Pereira said a member of the band lifted a firework into the air, which set the ceiling on fire. The flames quickly engulfed the entire room.
Taynne Vendruscolo, another survivor, told reporters: “Everyone was pushing and shoving. The fire started out small, but within seconds it exploded. Those who were close to the stage could not get out.”
Santa Maria fire chief Guido de Melo said the fire caused widespread panic, and that many revelers were stepped on or died from smoke fumes. He said club security had blocked people from exiting, sparking a stampede.
Firefighters doused the blackened shell of a red brick building with water and used sledgehammers to punch holes in the walls to get people out faster.
Santa Maria is a major university city with a population of around a quarter of a million. The town is home to the Federal University of Santa Maria.
“A friend of mine managed to get out but then had a heart attack and died,” Ana Paula Miller, a 19-year-old engineering student, told AFP.
Victims’ bodies were taken to a sports stadium that was then blocked off by police to keep grieving family members, many of them sobbing and some with soot-blackened faces, from streaming in.
Left outside they waited for news of missing loved ones. “My son was killed. My son was killed,” wailed one mother who came looking but only found his name on the list of the dead, and then passed out.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cut short a visit to Chile, where she was attending a European and Latin American summit, to head to Santa Maria and oversee the response.
“It’s a tragedy for all of us, and I cannot continue here at the summit, because my priority is the Brazilian people,” the visibly emotional leader told reporters traveling with her in Santiago.
She said federal and local authorities are mobilizing “all resources, so that we do not just recover the bodies but also support families at this time and provide very efficient care to the injured.”