SANTA MARIA, Brazil — Brazilian police reportedly took four people into custody Monday in connection with a deadly nightclub fire that killed at least 231 people, as funerals began in the small town of Santa Maria.
Two owners of the popular Kiss club and two members of the band that was performing at the time of the blaze early Sunday were being held for questioning, according to local press reports.
The tragedy, meanwhile, put the country in a period of national mourning and self-reflection, with social networks and political discourse busy with commentary on the many issues facing Brazil, especially fire safety at night-life venues.
“In the face of this tragedy, we have to make sure it never happens again,” President Dilma Rousseff said in a speech. “The victims were young. They had dreams. They could have been our future mayors, presidents, scientists, agronomists, psychologists and judges. They could have been any one of our sons or granddaughters.”
Authorities have said the nightclub did not have its fire permit up to date. According to witness accounts, there were indoor pyrotechnics, and no fire alarm or sprinklers appeared to go off.
Witnesses said that as flames and smoke spread through the club and people rushed for an exit, some fainted, some were trampled. Others headed for a bathroom, apparently in search of an exit or to get away from the smoke, but there was no escape.
Firefighters said there was only one exit. It was closed and locked when the chaos began, they said.
It was the worst nightclub fire the world has seen in a decade, since 309 people died in a disco in China in 2000. In Brazil, it was the worst fire in half a century, and it has rocked the college town of Santa Maria.
On Monday afternoon, the last of the bodies was being removed from the city’s sports complex, which had been converted into a giant makeshift morgue.
“This has completely stopped the city,” said Luis Fernando Nunes, the city’s secretary of sports, who had overseen a massive operation to identify bodies in the gym. “What was supposed to be fun for kids turned into disaster. But here, at least, we had a huge community effort to help out, and something like two or three thousand people came out.”
At the remains of the now-destroyed Kiss club downtown, a large crowd gathered into the night Monday, some crying, others milling around slowly. Outside the city a massive Brazilian flag flew at half-staff, and cemeteries were filled with flowers brought by the families that had already held funerals.
Relatives of the many who were injured in the fire placed their hopes in the hands of doctors. Mateus Pinheiro said he was counting on medical staff to keep his son Pedro Falcao alive.
“Seventy percent of his body was burned and he inhaled a lot of smoke,” Pinheiro said. “He couldn’t get out of the door, so someone else pushed him out, or else he wouldn’t have gotten out, and wouldn’t have survived.”
All day, ambulances and police cars sped through the countryside, deep in the relatively rich southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, close to the borders of Argentina and Uruguay.
O Estado de Sao Paulo, one of the country’s biggest newspapers, asked readers to submit the names and locations of nightclubs they think may be unsafe, and promised to investigate.
Bevins is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Ramiro Guimarães contributed to this report.