BRASILIA, Brazil — They were teenagers, mainly — bright young things studying medicine or agriculture, out to blow off steam before school started.
But before the night was through, they would die in their hundreds, choked by a toxic yellow fog and crushed by their peers as they groped blindly for an escape.
“It was worse than a scene from a horror movie,” said Murilo de Toledo Tiecher, 26, who survived the blaze that killed 236 people in a nightclub in southern Brazil in the early hours of Sunday morning. “People screaming, crying, lots of injured people without their skin and with burned bodies.”
The fire began when the performers of the evening, country music band Gurizada Fandangueira, lit a flare meant only for outdoor use as part of their pyrotechnics show, igniting sound proofing foam on the ceiling. (A police inspector told reporters on Tuesday that band members used those flares because they cost $1.25 a piece, while indoor flares were $35 each.)
De Toledo Tiecher, a third-year medical student at the Federal University of Santa Maria, where most of the dead were students, was one of the first to report that bouncers initially held the club’s doors shut, assuming revelers were trying to leave without paying their tabs. This detail of fatal human error caused outrage throughout a country deep in mourning, desperately seeking a scapegoat.
But as the wreckage has been cleared from Santa Maria’s Kiss nightclub, and the town has buried its young, more worrying details of apparent negligence have emerged — details that, for some, have drawn a question mark over Brazil’s ability to safely host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.
Experts say Brazil does not lack fire safety regulations, but that they vary state to state and are undermined by lax enforcement and a cultural preference for the Brazilian “jeitinho” — literally, “little way” — that implies a mischievous skirting of rules wherever possible.
At the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, rules were paid little heed: The 6,650 square-foot club had a maximum capacity of 691, but police estimate attendance at 1,200 to 1,300. The only exit was partially blocked by a rail. Several working fire extinguishers should have been spaced along the walls: witnesses reported failed attempts to quell the blaze with a single, malfunctioning extinguisher.
These were the lapses that turned a nightclub into a literal death chamber — newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported the acrid smoke produced by the highly inflammable synthetic soundproofing foam was cyanide, the same gas used in Nazi concentration camps.
“This fire could have been easily avoided by special training for employees and following the rules with exits, signage and using materials that weren’t flammable,” said Sergio Ceccarelli, who trains people in fire safety. “That’s the tragedy.”
Investigators have announced a probe into whether the local government was negligent in allowing the club to operate. Two band members and two of the club’s owners, one of whom reportedly tried to commit suicide Tuesday, have been detained as part of a separate criminal investigation, but not yet charged.
Mayor of Santa Maria Cezar Schirmer said Tuesday that inspectors last visited the Kiss nightclub in April and saw no reason to take away its license. He told reporters his mind was “tranquil” that his office had “done its duty,” and sought to shift responsibility.
“If any measures or inspections should have been taken, that was the responsibility of the fire department,” Reuters reported him as saying.
This, says Moacyr Duarte, a risk analyst at Rio de Janeiro's Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Graduate Studies and Research in Engineering, is precisely part of the problem. To get a license from the city, businesses require a permit from the fire department and, if their venue will serve food, the health department.
“The problem is that there is not perfect coordination, if any, among these actors — the firefighters, the mayor’s office and the health department.”
With no centralized system, venues often fall between the cracks, he said, and are able to operate with inadequate health and safety standards.
Ceccarelli says that Kiss was hardly an isolated case of poor standards, and estimates that only 20 percent of public buildings, including schools, hospitals and hotels, are in complete compliance with regulations. Using a “little way” to get requisite permits — from the exploitation of personal relationships to outright bribes — is all too common.
“There is an enormous amount of corruption with government servers,” he said. “With this way of thinking then you start jumping past your rules and regulations … saying ‘this is the way we are supposed to do it but we can make a little more cash this way.’”
“It’s all back to the Brazilian jeitinho,” he added.
Of course, Brazil is not the only country to have suffered a deadly nightclub fire. A blaze at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island killed 100 in 2003, and 194 lost their lives in a Buenos Aires club in 2004.
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But neglect of infrastructure and an elastic relationship with regulation routinely cause smaller accidents here — a Rio building collapse last year, thought to be caused by unauthorized construction, killed 17, for example. Main highways are perilously potholed, and the partial collapse of a soccer stadium in the city of Salvador killed seven in 2007.
Brazil’s preparation for the World Cup has already come under fire for running behind schedule and over budget. But while FIFA, the world soccer body, has warned sternly against further delays, the organization was quick to dismiss specific fears in the wake of the Kiss fire.
The fire “has nothing to do with football, nothing to do with stadiums,” FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke reportedly said in Brasilia this week. Standard World Cup security preparations will mean the stadiums can be evacuated “in less than a few minutes,” he said.
“The stadiums of the World Cup and the Olympics are not such a concern in terms of infrastructure,” as intense international scrutiny will ensure the stadiums are built to the highest standards, said Duarte. “The main concern with these events will be the training and preparation of people to deal with security there.”
In the wake of the Kiss tragedy it appears Brazilians may finally be losing patience with their “jeitinho.” Accusations of malfeasance and grisly, desperately sad details — bodies piled and tangled in bathrooms, groping for a way out that didn’t exist, cellphones ringing endlessly atop heaps of young corpses in a gymnasium — have garnered intense media attention and a fierce public response.
Some 15,000 people marched through Santa Maria Monday, demanding justice for their dead, carrying banners that reportedly read “Why the regulations? Why pay taxes? What is the government doing?”
The president of Brazil’s lower house of congress, Marco Maia, has said he will order a review of all safety legislation for venues, including nightclubs, and suggested that lawmakers would consider a uniform national code. The authorities in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, have promised tougher regulations and more inspections of clubs and venues.
The Kiss fire, as one student at the University of Brasilia said, could be “a gota d’agua” — that is, the final drop of water to make the glass spill over.
“This way of breaking rules, of wanting to find an informal route to get things done, is very common,” said Rafael Maragni, 20. “Maybe this tragedy will show you can’t play with the lives of others.”
Ordinary Brazilians certainly seem to hope so. “I would like to think that after this tragedy no authority will give a jeitinho to allow places to open with irregularities,” said Neide Moura de Brito do Nascimento, a house cleaner in Brasilia. “But it will be too late for those kids. Brazilians only close the door after they’ve already been robbed.”