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Fire, Panic and a Locked Main Exit

At Least 175 Perish at Jammed Buenos Aires Nightclub

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 1, 2005; Page A01

BUENOS AIRES, Dec. 31 -- The last thing Dario Gonzalez saw clearly was three blazing flares that shot toward the ceiling of the crowded nightclub.

The next 30 minutes unfolded in a chaotic, suffocating fog, he recounted. Black smoke obscured his vision, burning fragments of the ceiling scorched the skin of his forearm, and bodies crushed against him from all sides.


Rescuers help the injured outside the Republica Cromagnon club, where a main exit had been locked. (Gustavo Seiguer -- La Nacion Via AP)

Gonzalez, 22, was among those fortunate enough to escape alive from the Republica Cromagnon club here Thursday night, when a fire during a jammed indoor rock concert killed at least 175 and injured 700. On Friday, he was among the thousands who held grim vigils at hospitals, morgues and municipal offices, hoping to get information about friends and relatives who were still missing.

Witnesses said the blaze began after concertgoers set off fireworks inside the two-level club, igniting the ceiling and triggering a stampede as people confronted a locked main exit door while struggling to flee. Officials said Friday that the door had been wired shut by club staff to prevent people from entering without tickets.

"I don't know how I got out . . . the door was on fire," said Gonzalez, tattooed and dressed in shorts. Of the friends who attended the show with him, he said, one was confirmed dead and two others were missing. "What kind of jerk would throw a flare and ignite the whole place?" he demanded.

The fire itself was relatively minor, officials said, and it was extinguished quickly. Smoke inhalation and the crush of people at the locked exit were blamed for most of the fatalities and injuries, said Daniel Rosso, a spokesman for the Buenos Aires city government. Rosso said the final number of dead could rise because more than 100 people remained in critical condition in city hospitals.

About 11 p.m. Thursday, soot-covered rescue workers began carrying scores of unconscious victims out of the building, laying them along a sidewalk before reentering the building to retrieve more. On Friday morning the street in front of the club, in the gritty Once neighborhood, was littered with unclaimed shoes, blackened tatters of clothing and broken glass.

Gonzalez and other witnesses said many of the victims were teenagers and children, who had paid the equivalent of about $5 to see a local rock band, Los Callejeros. One of the club's bathrooms, they said, had been converted into a makeshift day-care center, where young children waited while their parents watched the show. Officials said Friday that they could not confirm how many of those killed were children.

"The band is new, and a lot of young kids like them," said Perla Burgos, 14, who was searching for her 17-year-old cousin Friday afternoon.

Juan Ledesma, 23, who worked at the Cromagnon cleaning bathrooms, took his wife and baby daughter to the concert -- then lost them in the dark inferno. After escaping from the building, he spent the night searching for them in vain. On Friday afternoon, he stood outside a city morgue, awaiting his turn to view photos of the bodies inside.

Both of his hands and forearms were bandaged with dirty gauze applied at a hospital in the early morning.

"In one second it was full of smoke and the lights went out," said Ledesma, who described fighting his way out with his shirt tied around his face against the dense smoke. "I couldn't see them anymore."

City officials estimated that 4,000 people had been squeezed into the club, which measured about 16,000 square feet. Ledesma said he saw the club owner having drinks at the bar before the concert. News reports Friday afternoon said the owner had been arrested.

Some of those waiting at morgues and hospitals lashed out at the owner and criticized the city government for lax enforcement of fire codes. But others said it was too early to assign blame.


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