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Firefighters try to extinguish the blaze that broke out at a nightclub in Santa Maria, near Brazil, yesterday.
SANTA MARIA: At least 232 people died early yesterday when fire tore through a nightclub packed with university students in the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria, police said.
Shocked survivors described a frantic rush to the exits as flames swept through the crowded club in the university town, with scores of young people getting trampled and passing out from smoke inhalation.
Another 131 people were injured, and the death toll from the inferno had climbed rapidly as firefighters pulled bodies from the charred remains of the “Kiss” club, believed to have been packed with hundreds of revellers.
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 2am (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.
“Everyone was pushing and shoving... The fire started out small, but in a matter of seconds it exploded,” Taynne Vendruscolo, another survivor, told reporters. “Those who were close to the stage could not get out.” Bortolotto Mattheus, a young dentist, said metal barriers set up at the entrances to organise lines had blocked the exits.
“A girl died in my arms. I could feel her heart stop beating. I had only seen that in movies,” he told the Band News television channel.
The discotheque’s fire permit had expired in August 2011, the local press reported, citing Moses Fuchs da Silva, head of the state fire department.
Santa Maria fire chief Guido de Melo said the fire caused widespread panic, and that many revelers were trampled or died from smoke inhalation. Military police commander Rois Tavares confirmed the new toll of dead and injured, after officials had earlier put the death toll higher, at 245 people.
He said the dead included 120 men and 112 women, most of whom had died of asphyxiation, and that all bodies had been removed from the wreckage.
Young men helped evacuate the wounded as firefighters doused the blackened shell of a red brick building with water and used sledge hammers to punch holes in the walls to get people out faster.
The bodies were taken to a sports stadium that was blocked off by police to keep grieving family members from streaming in.
Family members and survivors, many of them sobbing and some with soot-blackened faces, gathered outside in the hope of getting news of their loved ones. The town is home to the Federal University of Santa Maria.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cut short a visit to Chile, where she was attending a European and Latin American summit, to head to Santa Maria and oversee the response to 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,” the visibly emotional leader told reporters travelling with her in Santiago.
She said federal and local authorities are mobilising “all resources, so that we do not just recover the bodies but also support families at this time and provide very efficient care to the injured.” The tragedy recalled a 2003 blaze in a nightclub in the US state of Rhode Island that killed 100 people and another in Buenos Aires in 2004 that killed some 200, both blamed on faulty safety measures.