May 23, 2013
Brazil detains band, club owners after deadly nightclub fire
Brazilian police investigating a nightclub fire that killed 231 people detained today the owners of the club and two band members whose pyrotechnics show authorities say triggered the blaze.
No charges were filed against the four men, but prosecutors said they could be held for up to five days as police press them for clues as to how the fire early Sunday morning could have caused so many deaths.
Stunned residents in the southern city of Santa Maria attended a marathon of funerals beginning in the pre-dawn hours. After sunset, thousands joined a procession through the streets of the city, dressed in white and wearing black arm bands.
Some mourners demanded answers about the safety measures at the nightclub, where hundreds were trapped after the ceiling became engulfed in flames. "Why the regulations? Why pay taxes? What is the government doing?" read a banner carried by university students who had lost friends in the fire.
The tragedy comes as Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and 2016 Olympics, putting its safety standards and emergency response capabilities in the international spotlight.
President Dilma Rousseff, who cut short a visit to Chile to fly to the scene of the disaster yesterday, called for a minute of silence before addressing a meeting of newly elected mayors in the capital, Brasilia.
"The pain I saw in Santa Maria was indescribable," Rousseff said. "Faced with this tragedy, it is our duty to make sure it never happens again."
Most of the dead were suffocated by toxic fumes that rapidly filled the Kiss nightclub after the band set off a flare at about 2:30 am on Sunday, authorities said. The club's operating license was under review for renewal after expiring last year.
Witnesses said bouncers initially blocked the only functioning exit because they believed fleeing customers were trying to skip out on their bar tabs. Tarso Genro, governor of the prosperous southern state of Rio Grande do Sul where the disaster occurred, said authorities had shifted their focus from rescue and taking care of the wounded to investigating the scene.
"We're going to find out who was responsible," he vowed. The death toll was revised down to 231 from 233 as officials said some names had been counted twice. By tonight, 129 people were still hospitalized, 76 of them in serious condition, according to state health services.
Mourning throughout Brazil was mixed with frustration at a culture of lax regulation blamed for putting lives at risk. "So many young ones with all of their lives ahead of them," Brazilian soccer legend Pele wrote on Twitter. "The government has to make a priority of event security in this country!"