A blaze tore through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early today, killing 232 people as the air filled with deadly smoke and panicked party-goers stampeded toward the exits.
Witnesses said that a flare or firework lit by band members may have started the fire.
Police Major Cleberson Braida Bastianello said officials counted 232 bodies 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.
Bastianello said that lowered the toll from 245 earlier believed killed.
Television images showed smoke pouring out of the Kiss nightclub as 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 members of the band 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.
Most of the dead apparently suffocated, according to Dr Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria who raced to the city’s Caridade Hospital to help victims.
He said survivors, police and firefighters told him a flare set by a band member set the ceiling’s soundproofing ablaze.
“Large amounts of toxic smoke quickly filled the room and I would say that at least 90% of the victims died of asphyxiation,” Beltrame said.
“The toxic smoke made people lose their sense of direction so they were unable to find their way to the exit. At least 50 bodies were found inside a bathroom. Apparently they confused the bathroom door with the exit door.”
“In the hospital I saw desperate friends and relatives walking and running down the corridors looking for information. It was one of the saddest scenes I have ever witnessed,” he added.
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.
Beltrame also said he was told the club was filled far past its capacity during a party for students at the university’s department of agronomy. The event featured a group called Gurizada Fandangueira, which plays a mixture of local Brazilian country music styles. It was not immediately clear if the band members were among the victims.