The tragedy happened in the early hours of this morning during a student night at the Kiss nightclub in the town of Santa Maria, in Brazil’s southern Rio Grande do Sul state.
The blaze was started by a flare thrown from the stage and quickly swept through the club, witnesses said.
Survivors told of chaos as hundreds of partygoers scrambled for the exit as thick black smoke filled the club. Most of the victims died of asphyxiation or from being trampled in the panic, police said.
“Those who were far from the doors had simply no chance, said clubber Matheus Bortolotto, who went back into the club to find survivors. “A girl died in my arms, I felt her heart stop beating. It was like something out of a movie. The ambulances simply could not cope with all the wounded.”
The fire started soon after 2.30am when between 400 and 500 people were in the club listening to one of the night’s two bands open their set.
A flare thrown from the stage appears to have ignited soundproofing foam on the ceiling. Previous fires in nightclubs – including one that killed 194 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2004 – also started this way.
Luiza Sousa, a civil police official in Santa Maria, said the blaze then spread “in seconds”.
“We looked up at the ceiling in front of the stage and saw it had caught fire,” clubber Luana Santos Silva, 23, told Brazil’s Globo TV. My sister grabbed me and dragged me out of the club.”
“Everyone was pushing and shoving…the fire started out small, but in a matter of seconds it exploded,” said Taynne Vendruscolo, another survivor.
Some witnesses claim there was only one exit – and that security guards initially blocked their escape.
Murilo de Toledo Tiecher, a 26-year-old medical student, said: “People were screaming ‘there’s a fire’ but the security guards didn’t budge and tried to keep the door shut. Five or six people knocked over one security guard and knocked down the door. It was the only exit.” Another 117 victims were last night being treated in hospital. Many survivors appear to have been in the VIP area close to the exit. Those nearer the stage are said to have had little chance of escape.
Photographer Fernanda Gomes Freire Bona, 23, who was in the VIP area on an assignment, said the fact she was able to spot the fire early saved her life. “As I was near the door, thank God, I ran and in five minutes I was outside,” she said.
Today, bodies were being removed from the club hours after the fire was extinguished. According to Brazil’s O Globo newspaper, the first truck carried 67 bodies and the second 70. Police cordoned off the site to prevent anguished relatives from streaming in.
The city declared 30 days of mourning. The Vice-Mayor, Jose Haidar Farret, said: “This university town has never experienced anything like this. Just yesterday we were here to watch the selection of our carnival queen and today, in the same sports centre, we are here collecting bodies.”
Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, cut short a visit to Chile, where she was taking part in a regional summit, to visit the scene of the tragedy. “It’s a tragedy for all of us, and I cannot continue here at the summit, because my priority is the Brazilian people,” she said.
A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: “As far as we are aware, there are no British nationals involved.”
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