In a horrific tragedy that would raise serious questions about public safety in Brazil, some 245 people — mostly teenagers — were killed and around 200 injured in an inferno that swept through a nightclub, Kiss, in Santa Maria, a small city in Rio Grande do Sul, the prosperous southern state which shares its border with Argentina and Uruguay.
This appears to be the deadliest nightclub fire since 2000 anywhere in the world.
The inferno started during the fireworks show when a band was playing in the club on Saturday night. As fireworks hit the ceiling of the club, packed with 2,000 teenagers enjoying a Saturday night party, the soundproofing material made of foam caught fire and within minutes the club was engulfed in huge flames and thick smoke, with most young boys and girls being asphyxiated or trampled to death.
The fire was so intense that fire crews had to knocked down a wall to enter the premises and help those trapped inside escape. Major Gerson da Rosa Ferreira, overseeing rescue efforts at the scene for the military police, told reporters in Santa Maria that 189 bodies had already been identified and removed from the nightclub. But the firefighters were still looking for more bodies in the burnt-down club.
While most people escaped unhurt, according to officials in Santa Maria, more than 200 are being treated in hospitals in the region, the condition of at least eight people is said to be very serious. The firefighters said the fatalities happened due to inhalation of toxic smoke.
"Most of these people died asphyxiated. They panicked and ended up trampling each other. A major factor for the deaths was asphyxiation. Styrofoam creates a toxic smoke too," the commanding general of the fire department, Col Guido de Melo told TOI over telephone from Santa Maria, a rich city of 300,000 people located some 300 km west of the state capital of Porto Alegre, which will host a few games of Fifa World Cup in 2014.
The city, which has a major air fore base and is located on the trade highway to Argentina and Uruguay, was plunged in sorrow as many families lost their teenager sons and daughters. Calling the tragedy"a sad Sunday", Rio Grande do Sul governor Tarso Genro said"all possible measures" are being taken to treat the fire victims.
Though the whole of Brazil was plunged into sorrow on Sunday morning, the tragedy is all likely to be turned into a political issue soon. The governor of Rio Grannde de Sul belongs to the Workers Party — the same as Brzilian President Dilma Rousseff.
As the party has been under attack for several corruption scandals that happened during the tenure of President Lula from 2002 to 2010, its detractors have not got new ammunition to attack the party and President Rousseff. "The President's record is unblemished, but now the opposition will attack the government as the tragedy has happened as we prepare for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016," said a Sao Paulo-based leader of the Workers Party, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's bad for Brazil's image."
With its economy booming and social equality becoming a reality, Brazil has been on upswing, with the both federal and sate governments doing their best to showcase Brazil's economic might and political clout in the 2014 and 2016 events. The Santa Maria tragedy is a big setback to these efforts. "Now the foreigners, who always want to show us in bad light, will pounce on us and say 'look, that's how things worj in Brazil," says Jorge Perreira, a local blogger. "But this kind of tragedy can happen — and it happens — in any part of the world."
Right now, at the time of filing of this report, both the federal government and state government were mobilizing all their resources to provide relief and comfort to the residents of Santa Maria, which hosts an important Catholic festival Romaria da Medianeira every year, with hundreds of thousands of people from all over Brazil arriving there for celebrations.
For Brazil at stake is not just the reputation of the state governor but also its credentials to host back-to-back two biggest sporting events in two years.