Originally published on January 30, 2013.
The Kiss Nightclub, a popular venue in the college town of Santa Maria in southern Brazil, was filled with a boisterous, happy crowd in the wee hours of Sunday morning on January 27, 2013. About 1,200-1,300 people packed the club. Many of them were dancing and drinking as the music of the Gurizada Fandangueira band played. The club was hosting a special event for Federal University of Santa Maria students that marked the end of summer break and resumption of classes.
At about 2:00 a.m., acoustic insulation caught fire. A pyrotechnics display was going on that fanned out colored sparks and it is possible that a spark triggered the blaze, but this has not been definitely determined as of this writing. The Associated Press reported that guitarist Rodrigo Lemos Martins “said the group nearly always used the so-called Sputnik pyrotechnics machine and that it had never before caused any problem, even in smaller venues.” Martins also commented, “There were many wires on the ceiling and there could have been a short circuit.”
The fire quickly spread and the panicked crowd rushed for the front door. A band member grabbed a fire extinguisher only to learn that it did not work. Toxic smoke filled the venue and its effects may have caused people to lose their sense of direction so some were unable to even go toward the door. People who thought they made it out safely later began showing symptoms of smoke inhalation, which can take hours or longer to appear.
Medical student Michele Cardoso, 20, was at the nightclub with her sister Clarissa and boyfriend Joao Paulo. At 3:20 a.m., 50 minutes after the fire began, Michele used her cell phone to post a Facebook message that stated, “Fire at KISS help.” Friends left replies asking if she were all right but all those replies went unanswered. Michele, Clarissa, and Joao Paulo all died in the fire.
Kiss lacked a fire alarm as well as sprinklers and fire escapes. The safety code in the Brazilian state in which Kiss is situated requires a fire extinguisher every 1,500 square feet and multiple emergency exits. Kiss had no working emergency exits. Survivor Matheus Bortolotto commented, “It was sheer horror. The emergency exits did not work and then I lost my friend in the confusion. Then a girl died in my arms. I felt her heart stop beating.”
Police Inspector Antonio Firmino said Kiss’s ceiling was insulated with very flammable foam. He also commented that there was a second door but that it was “inadequate” because bars prevented it from opening.
The AP reported, “Television images from Santa Maria showed black smoke billowing out of the Kiss nightclub as shirtless young men who attended the university party joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at the hot-pink exterior walls, trying to reach those trapped inside.”
Santa Maria Mayor Jose Fortunati said after the tragedy that several of the city’s nightclubs had been closed last year for failing to comply with the safety code. “At that time, we had lots of protest from those who frequented them but I think that today people understand it better that at times hard stands must be taken so that steps are taken to not put people’s lives at risk,” he commented. However, he did not explain why Kiss was not among those venues closed. Local fire official Moises da Silva Fuchs said that the club license for Kiss had expired in August 2012 and not been renewed. Brazil’s Civil Defense Minister, Humberto Viana, said that the nightclub’s fire inspection license had also expired last year.
Escaping the burning building was rendered more difficult because security guards, unaware of the fire, blocked some people from leaving. They may have done this because bars in Brazil often have customers pay their total tab right before leaving. “Some guards thought at first that it was a fight, a huge fight that happened inside the club and closed the doors so that the people could not leave without paying their bills from the club,” reporter Glauber Fernandes stated. Police Inspector Sandro Meinerz said, “It was chaotic and it doesn’t seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died.”
One of those killed was Gurizada Fandangueira accordionist Danilo Jacques, 28. The other five band members made it out safely. Guitarist Martins recalls being shocked when the blaze began. “I felt that something was falling from the roof and I looked up and I saw the fire was spreading and I shouted, ‘Look, it’s catching on fire, man, it’s catching fire!’” he remembered. Martins elaborated, “I thought I was going to die there. There was nothing I could do with the fire spreading and people screaming in front.”
At least 233 people were killed. Most died from smoke inhalation. Others were trampled to death in the rush to escape. Survivor Luana Santos Silva said, “People started running. I fell on the floor.” Of those who perished, the majority are believed to have been college students aged 18 to 21. Several were minors. Smoke inhalation, rather than burns, account for most deaths.
The Kiss fire is believed to be the world’s worst fire in a public place in more than ten years.
CNN.com reports, “Video from the scene showed firefighters shooting streams of water at the club and shirtless men trying to break down a wall with axes. Smoke billowed outside the front of the building as the stench of fire filled the air, said Max Muller, who was riding by on his motorbike when he saw the blaze. Muller recorded video of a chaotic scene outside the club, which showed emergency crews tending to victims and dazed club goers standing in the street.” Many dead bodies lay on the street. State lawmaker Valderci Oliveira said it looked “like a war zone.”
Police Inspector Sandro Meinerz recalled, “It was terrible inside – it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another.”
Firefighters had difficulty getting inside the building because dead bodies blocked the front door.
On Monday, January 28, 2013, funerals were held for about 50 victims of the fire. Authorities turned one gymnasium into a temporary morgue in which coffins were lined up. Mourners filled the streets in funeral processions. At one funeral, two teenaged brothers, the only children in their family, were buried side by side.
Over 130 victims remain hospitalized as of this writing. National Health Minister Alexandre Padiha told reporters that 75% of the injured are in critical condition and, therefore, in very great danger of dying. Dr. Paulso Afonso Beltrame said, “It’s impossible to predict what will happen because they are all in a very delicate state but there’s hope for all of them. One of the problems we’re having is that all these people need to be on respirators and we don’t have enough respirators in the city.” He also said more than forty injured people have been taken to neighboring cities for treatment.
More than 180 bodies were found in the restrooms. There are reports that panicked people mistook restrooms for exits. Military Police Captain Edi Garcia remarked, “I found people with their heads inside the toilet, trying to find oxygen any way they could.”
On the day of the funerals, police arrested four people in connection with the fire. The detained are club co-owners Elissandro Spohr and Mauro Hoffman, the band’s lead singer Marcelo Santos, and the band’s chief security officer. Police Official Marcos Viana said they would be detained for five days while authorities continue to investigate and that the five-day period could be extended to ten. Viana said, “We concluded that it was necessary to hold them prisoner temporarily because we need their statements to help us clarify the incident. We have much work to ahead to clarify what happened and identify those responsible.” At least 20 other people have been questioned.
Flowers have been left outside the nightclub. A flag outside Brazil’s Presidential Palace was lowered to half-staff.
Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schrimer declared a thirty-day mourning period for the fire’s victims.
The last similar nightclub fire was in December 2000 when a nightclub in Luoyang, China killed 309 people. It is believed that fire was triggered by a welding accident.
Many people are comparing the Kiss nightclub tragedy to The Station nightclub fire that occurred in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003. A performance by the band Great White included pyrotechnics which caused a fire that killed 100 people and injured many more. The parallels are startling as pyrotechnics were the cause of the fire at The Station and are suspected of causing the fire at Kiss. In addition, The Station tragedy was due to its being insulated with flammable foam. Bouncers turned people away from the closest exit because it was a “band exit only,” leading to deaths and injuries.
After The Station tragedy, safety improvements were made mandatory at Rhode Island nightclubs. It is likely that the Kiss fire will lead to safety improvements at Brazilian nightclubs.
Sources on following page.