SANTA MARIA, Brazil — It was just before 3 a.m. when the resident DJ tweeted a photo from inside the popular Kiss nightclub, where a singer was belting out a song between two huge columns of pyrotechnic sparks.
“The house is mega-packed,” DJ Bolinha wrote. “Great to play here.”
Soon after, the ceiling caught fire. Flames spread. Toxic smoke swirled through the club, causing a stampede of sweaty bodies toward the exit. Some people fainted; others were trampled. Some poured through a bathroom door, apparently believing it led outside — or simply wanting to get out of the smoke.
Police would later find scores of bodies in the bathroom, which provided no escape. They were among more than 230 people who died early Sunday in the club in Santa Maria, a college town of 250,000 in southern Brazil. It was one of the worst fires in Brazilian history, and the worst nightclub fire worldwide in the last decade.
“I saw loads of smoke and fire, and I thought it was just part of the show,” said Fernanda Bona, who was taking photos at the club. “But then I saw that no, it was real, and thank God, I was close to the exit and ran to it with hundreds of other people — who were pushing and falling, and choking, but I managed to get out.”
She was lucky. “The scene was terrible, lots of toxic smoke and so many people dying,” Bona said in a telephone interview. “The atmosphere around here, words aren’t sufficient to describe it. It feels like this is a nightmare, and we’ll wake up and everything will be fine. But it won’t.”
The tragedy in the relatively rich state of Rio Grande do Sul shocked the country, which woke to chaotic, televised scenes of firefighters and bare-chested men pulling people from the smoking building.
A tearful President Dilma Rousseff announced that she had canceled plans to attend a summit in Chile and instead went to Santa Maria to visit victims.
“I’d like to tell the population of our country, and of Santa Maria, that we are all together in this moment,” Rousseff said. Brazil canceled a ceremony planned for Monday to celebrate the 500th day before the country hosts the 2014 World Cup.
The fire was among a series to occur in nightclubs around the world, and the worst since December 2000, when a disco fire in Luoyang, China, killed 309 people. That blaze was blamed on a welding accident, but others have been blamed on indoor pyrotechnics.
Among them was a fire at a club in Perm, Russia, that killed 152 people in 2009; one in Buenos Aires that killed 194 people in 2004; and one in West Warwick, R.I., that killed 100 people in 2003.
As families gathered Sunday at a makeshift morgue at a gymnasium in Santa Maria and waited for news, authorities and survivors tried to find causes for the tragedy.
The nightclub did not have its fire permit up to date, authorities said. The band that was playing, Gurizada Fandangueira, performed an indoor pyrotechnics show that included flares — a flourish that has been blamed for a number of fatal nightclub fires internationally in recent years. Firefighters said there was only one exit, and that it was closed and locked when the chaos began.
DJ Bolinha, whose real name is Lucas Cauduro Peranzoni, insisted that no doors were locked, but described a terrifying scene.
“Everyone was pushing one another,” Peranzoni told local media. “I breathed in some of that smoke and I felt woozy. I collapsed at the door and the security guards pulled me out.”
At nightclubs in Brazil, it is common for patrons to accumulate a bar tab throughout the night, which they pay in order to exit. Under normal circumstances it’s extremely difficult to leave at a moment’s notice, and would be impossible if security guards weren’t yet informed of a need to evacuate.
In the early chaos Sunday, some survivors said, security guards were demanding that fleeing patrons pay their bar tabs before being allowed out. They apparently stopped when they realized what was happening.
“Maybe the very, very first people were stopped and asked to show they had paid their bill, because the security didn’t know yet that there was a fire,” said Bona, 23. But by the time she got to the exit, she said, “I went straight out.”
Bona graduated from the local university in November and used to work as official photographer for the club. Because of that, she said, she was in the VIP area of the club, relatively close to the exit.
Others said that those who were closest to the stage had the most difficult time getting out. Descriptions posted on social media told of the horror as people tried desperately to flee.
“I saw people begin to panic, to fall over, and pass out all over one another, it was a sea of people thrown around,” survivor Ezequiel Real posted on his Facebook page. “I saw people in crisis just running to the closest door, which was to the bathroom, and they stayed in there. I saw workers go to hide in the freezers.”
Authorities have released a partial list of the dead, and said 106 people were hospitalized for injuries suffered in the blaze. At least one member of the band, accordion player Danilo Jaques, 30, was listed among the dead.
“I lost six or seven friends, and that hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said Filipe Dias, 25. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to take it when I see Vinao,” Dias said, referring to his good friend Vinicius Montardo Rosado, one of the dead.
Throughout the day, families waited tensely to hear whether their relatives had survived.
“I spent all morning looking [for my daughter] and I found her, she’s here, and she’s alive,” said the mother of Kelen Aline Favarin at a nearby hospital. “We got here and were able to breathe again, the panic has passed. It’s a shame that many people won’t be able to feel the same today.”
Bevins and Guimarães are special correspondents. Bevins reported from Sao Paulo and Guimarães from Santa Maria.