, SANTA MARIA, Brazil, Jan 28 – At least 233 people died on Sunday when a fire gutted a nightclub packed with students and killed merry-makers desperately clamouring to get past blocked doors, police and survivors said.
Shocked survivors, mostly young adults in the southern college town of Santa Maria, described a frantic rush to the exits as flames swept through the club, with scores of people getting trampled and passing out from smoke inhalation.
“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,” young dentist Mattheus Bortolotto told local television Band News.
“Then a girl died in my arms. I felt when her heart stopped beating. I had only ever seen something like that in the movies.”
Even outside, he said, “the metal barriers they used to keep people in line on their way in, ended up blocking people from getting out. 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.”
Brazil quickly postponed an event dubbed “500 Days until World Cup-2014” set for Monday in the federal capital Brasilia.
“As a sign of mourning due to the tragedy in Santa Maria, Federal District governor Agnelo Queiroz, who is deeply saddened, has decided to push back the event that had been scheduled for National Stadium,” his office said.
Another 131 people were injured, and the death toll from the inferno climbed rapidly as firefighters pulled bodies from the charred remains of the “Kiss” club, believed to have been packed with hundreds of revellers.
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 deadliest such blaze in more than a decade, since a fire at a shopping centre and discotheque in the central Chinese city of Luoyang killed more than 300 people in 2000.
Reports said the fire broke out after 2:00 am (0400 GMT) when the nightclub was hosting a university party featuring a rock band using pyrotechnics, but authorities have yet to offer an official explanation.
Survivor Michelle Pereira said the blaze broke out when a band member lifted a firework into the air, setting the ceiling on fire. The flames quickly engulfed the entire room.