SANTA MARIA, Brazil — A fast-moving fire roared through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, within seconds filling the space with flames and a thick, toxic smoke that killed more than 230 panicked partygoers who gasped for breath and fought in a stampede to escape.
It appeared to be the world’s deadliest nightclub fire in more than a decade.
Firefighters responding to the blaze at first had trouble getting inside the Kiss nightclub because bodies partially blocked the club’s entryway.
Witnesses said a flare or firework lighted by band members started the blaze in Santa Maria, a college city of about 260,000 people. Officials at a news conference said the cause was still under investigation — though police inspector Sandro Meinerz told the Agencia Estado news agency that the band was to blame for a pyrotechnics show and that manslaughter charges could be filed.
Television images showed black smoke billowing out of the Kiss nightclub as shirtless young men who had attended a college party joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at windows and hot-pink exterior walls to free those trapped inside.
Bodies of the dead and injured were strewn in the street and panicked screams filled the air as medics tried to help. There was little to be done; officials said most of those who died were suffocated by smoke within minutes.
Within hours, a community gym was a horror scene, with body after body lined up on the floor, partially covered with black plastic as relatives made identifications.
Outside the gym, police held up personal objects — a black purse, a blue high-heeled shoe — as people seeking information on loved ones looked around, hoping not to recognize anything being shown them.
Guido Pedroso Melo, commander of the city’s fire department, told the O Globo newspaper that firefighters had a hard time getting inside the club because “there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance.”
Teenagers sprinted from the scene after the fire began, desperately seeking help. Others carried injured and burned friends away in their arms. Many of the victims were under 20 years old, including some minors.
“There was so much smoke and fire, it was complete panic, and it took a long time for people to get out, there were so many dead,” survivor Luana Santos Silva told the Globo TV network.
The fire spread so fast inside the packed club that firefighters could do little to stop it, Silva said.
Another survivor, Michele Pereira, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lighted flares that started the conflagration.
“The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward,” she said. “At that point, the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak, but in a matter of seconds it spread.”
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins told Radio Gaucha that the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, started playing at 2:15 a.m. “and we had played around five songs when I looked up and noticed the roof was burning.”
“It might have happened because of the Sputnik, the machine we use to create a luminous effect with sparks. It’s harmless, we never had any trouble with it.
“When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher, the singer tried to use it but it wasn’t working.”
He confirmed that accordion player Danilo Jacques, 28, died, while the five other members made it out safely.
The blaze was the deadliest in Brazil since at least 1961, when a fire that swept through a circus killed 503 people in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro.