The disaster in Santa Maria, a city of about 260,000 residents that is known for its cluster of universities, ranked as one of the deadliest nightclub fires. President Dilma Rousseff left a summit meeting in Chile to meet with survivors, and the government declared three days of mourning.

The circumstances surrounding the blaze, including reports that guards briefly blocked the exit, immediately raised questions about whether the club’s owners had been negligent and whether enforcement of safety measures was lacking. The police were questioning several band members and club owners.

Officials revised the toll downward overnight, according to news agency reports, to 231 from 233 — most killed by smoke inhalation — while 82 were hospitalized, at least 30 in serious condition.

“The smoke spread very quickly,” Aline Santos Silva, 29, a survivor, said in comments to the television network Globo News. “Those who were closest to the stage where the band was playing had the most difficulty getting out.”

Witnesses said the fire started about 2 a.m. after the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, began performing at the club, Kiss, for an audience made up mostly of students in the agronomy and veterinary medicine programs at a local university. Murilo de Toledo Tiecher, 26, a medical student at the University of Caxias do Sul who was at the club, said the band’s singer lighted a kind of flare and held it over his ahead, accidentally setting the ceiling on fire.

The band’s guitarist, Rodrigo Martins, told Brazilian radio that the band had played about five songs when he saw that the ceiling was on fire, according to The Associated Press. “A guard passed us a fire extinguisher,” he was quoted as saying. “The singer tried to use it, but it wasn’t working.”

He confirmed that the band’s accordion player, Danilo Jacques, 28, died, but he said five other members made it out safely.

With panic spreading, people stampeded to the exit, only to find it blocked by security guards, according to witnesses and fire officials. While it was not clear why patrons were initially not allowed to escape, it is common across Brazil for nightclubs and bars to have customers pay their entire tab upon leaving, instead of on a per-drink basis.

Survivors described a frenzied and violent rush for the main exit. Mr. Tiecher said he and his friends had to push through a crush of people to get around a metal barrier that was preventing the crowd from spilling out into the street. He said some people became trapped after they rushed into the bathroom near the exit, thinking it was a way out. Once he was outside, he said, he tried to pull others to safety.

“If we saw a hand or a head, we’d start pulling the person out by the hair,” he said in a telephone interview. “People were burned; some didn’t even have clothes.”

He said the guards initially thought that a fight had broken out inside, and that customers would use the opportunity to leave without paying their bar tabs. Only after they realized that a fire was raging inside did the security guards let the crowd go, Mr. Tiecher said.

Fire officials said they had trouble getting into the club because of the pileup of bodies at the entrance, according to news reports. Valdeci Oliveira, a local legislator, told reporters that he saw piles of bodies in the nightclub’s bathrooms. Health workers hauled bodies from the club to hospitals in Santa Maria all through Sunday morning. Some of the survivors were taken to the nearby city of Porto Alegre to be treated for burns.

The disaster recalls the 2003 blaze in Rhode Island that killed 100 people, one in 2004 in Buenos Aires in which 194 were killed, and a fire at a club in China in 2000 in which 309 people died.

Preventable disasters commonly claim lives in Brazil, as illustrated by Rio de Janeiro’s building collapses, manhole explosions and trolley mishaps. However, the nation’s civil service has grown significantly over the past decade, tax revenues are soaring and there is no shortage of laws and regulations governing the minutiae of companies large and small.

“Bureaucracy and corruption also cause tragedies,” said André Barcinski, a columnist for Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest newspapers.

Brazilian television stations broadcast images of trucks carrying corpses to hospitals where family members were gathering. Photographs taken shortly after the blaze and posted on the Web sites of local news organizations showed frantic scenes in which people on the street outside the nightclub pulled bodies from the charred debris.

Parents and other family members wandered through Santa Maria on Sunday searching for their loved ones. “I still think she hasn’t died,” Cibela Focco, 35, whose daughter was in the nightclub and still had not been heard from, told reporters Sunday evening.

The tragedy took place in a region of Brazil where Ms. Rousseff spent much of her early political career before rising to national prominence as a top aide to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and running for president herself. Before leaving the meeting in Chile, she appeared distraught, crying in front of reporters as she absorbed details of the blaze.

“This is a tragedy,” she said, “for all of us.”

Jill Langlois contributed reporting from São Paulo, Brazil, and Michael Schwirtz from New York.

Before Dawn, Funerals Begin for Victims of Brazil Nightclub Fire – New York Times
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