A deadly fire swept through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early today, killing at least 245 people attending a university party and leaving at least 200 injured, police and firefighters said.
It appeared to be the deadliest nightclub fire in more than a decade.
Witnesses said that a flare or firework lit by band members may have started the fire.
Police Major Cleberson Braida told local news media that the 245 bodies were brought for identification to a gymnasium in the city of Santa Maria, at the southern tip of Brazil near the borders with Argentina and Uruguay.
Television images showed smoke pouring out of the Kiss nightclub as shirtless, young male partygoers joined firefighters in wielding axes and sledgehammers, pounding at windows and walls to break through to those trapped inside.
Teenagers sprinted from the scene desperately trying to find help – others carried injured and burned friends away in their arms.
“There was so much smoke and fire, it was complete panic and it took a long time for people to get out…There were so many dead,” survivor Luana Santos Silva told the Globo TV network.
Silva added that firefighters and ambulances responded quickly after the fire broke out, but that it spread too fast inside the packed club for them to help.
Michele Pereira, another survivor, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage and that the fire broke out after band members lit flares.
“The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward. At that point the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak but in a matter of seconds it spread,” Pereira said.
Civil Police and regional government spokesman Marcelo Arigoni told Radio Gaucha earlier that the total number of victims is still unclear and there may be hundreds injured.
Rodrigo Moura, a security guard at the club, said it was at its maximum capacity of between 1,000 and 2,000, and partygoers were pushing and shoving to escape.
Ezekiel Corte Real, 23, said he helped people to escape. “I just got out because I’m very strong,” he said.
The fire led President Dilma Roussef to cancel a series of meetings she had scheduled at a summit of Latin American and European leaders in Chile’s capital of Santiago, and was headed to Santa Maria, according to the Brazilian foreign ministry.
“It is a tragedy for all of us. I am not going to continue in the meeting (in Chile) for very clear reasons,” she said.
Santa Maria is a major university city with a population of around a quarter of a million.