Utopian Image of Sweden Lies in Disco’s Ashes
Charred metal strips that once held up punchboard ceiling tiles hang like gruesome streamers in the gutted shell of the Macedonian Assn. clubhouse, a vision of ruin and sorrow more befitting a Third World disaster than one in sleek, modern, law-abiding Sweden.
Yet as investigators Saturday sifted through the ashes of the disco party fire that killed 60 young people, they sadly concluded that Sweden has become much like any country where life speeds along a little too quickly and harried residents cut legal corners.
Authorities have yet to determine the cause of the deadly blaze that sent 173 young revelers to hospitals for treatment of burns and smoke inhalation. However, they acknowledge that the staggering tolls of dead and injured were the result of disregard for public safety by the party’s organizers, who charged an entrance fee to their makeshift disco to three times as many youths as the facility was licensed to hold.
“This is a warning for our society,” said Per-Olof Ortgren, head of the regional SOS-Alarm emergency response network. “We are generally a safety-conscious country, but if we look at ourselves honestly, we have to see that all the dangers are speeding up. People are driving faster, we are relying on technology too much and everything is getting out of our control.”
He pointed to the Estonia ferry disaster four years ago in which more than 900 people died, most of them Swedes, as earlier evidence of the country’s lost innocence, and described the doomed vessel as something “built more like a warehouse than a passenger ship.”
Friday’s horror at the private disco party completes what many Swedes see as their steady fall from grace since the late 1970s, when the country’s serene image and widespread wealth made it the social model of the world.
Since then, government scandals, skyrocketing taxes and creeping unemployment have inflicted social fissures between the haves and have-nots. And with newcomers who have taken refuge in Sweden to escape violence and hatred elsewhere, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, those ills have sometimes followed.
The still-unresolved killing of Prime Minister Olof Palme nearly 12 years ago plunged Sweden into the age of senseless terrorism, and ethnic rivalry among Goteborg’s large non-Nordic population is one possibility under investigation as the cause of the disco fire.
A leader of the local rescue team, Lennart Olin, observed that he has encountered nothing in the probe to rule out arson.
Olin said at the scene during the first hours of the tragedy that the fire spread so quickly, it appeared to have been deliberately set.
Police officials have been more cautious in discussing possible causes, noting that the investigation continues and no conclusions have been reached.
Goteborg Chief Prosecutor Ulf Noren said his office is looking into possible arson charges and might consider civil penalties against the party organizers.
“The laws in this country are adequate to prevent such disasters, but only if people follow them,” he said of the regulations governing capacity, which were flouted by the mostly teenage organizers who charged about $5.25 per entrant.
Noren dismissed insurance fraud as a possible motive for arson, should it be determined that the fire was deliberately set. He likewise doubted that the blaze could have been ignited by racists striking against the clubhouse frequented by immigrants and their children.
“I can more easily imagine someone being prevented from entering for some reason and going off angry,” he said.
Local politician Peter Kool also disputed any possibility that a neo-Nazi group set the blaze out of blind hatred toward non-Nordic residents, who now make up about 10% of the country’s 8.8 million people.
“I’ve worked with immigrant communities here for 20 years, and, although they have their problems with some small groups, nothing like this is even imaginable,” Kool said, adding that inter-ethnic rivalry among some of the revelers is a more probable explanation if the fire was arson.
Police Chief Hans Carlsson complained that many reports from survivors have been contradictory, probably because of the panic and confusion that ensued when the fire raced through the packed second-story hall.
One of two exits on either side of the stage where the teenage disc jockey had set up his equipment was obstructed by heavy speakers, police have determined, and the fire was reported by many survivors to have entered the room through the other door. That left only one narrow passage leading to a back door as an escape route. Dozens of bodies were found there, piled on top of each other where the youths were trampled or succumbed to smoke.
Officials continued the grim task of identifying victims burned beyond recognition and usually carrying no identification. The protracted process was cause for fresh grief as parents who spent the previous 24 hours combing emergency rooms and burn centers looking for missing children found their worst fears realized in the morgue at Sahlgrenska Hospital.
Outside the ill-fated hall, a memorial wall of flowers, notes and candles stretches the length of a football field along a parking lot curb. Bereaved friends of the dead huddled in tearful clusters, and wailing mothers, just back from Sahlgrenska’s morgue, paced the long path of tributes in anguish.