More than 500 people were in the nightclub when a performing band's pyrotechnic show got out of control.
SAO PAULO — A blaze raced through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, killing more than 230 people as the air filled with deadly smoke and panicked party-goers stampeded toward the exits, police and witnesses said. It appeared to be the world's deadliest nightclub fire in more than a decade.
Witnesses said a flare or firework lit by band members started the blaze in Santa Maria, a university city of about 225,000 people, though officials said the cause was still under investigation.
Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by telephone that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim. Officials counted 232 bodies that had been brought for identification to a gymnasium in Santa Maria.
Another 117 people were being treated at hospitals, he said, and President Dilma Rousseff arrived to visit victims after cutting short participation at a Latin American-European summit in Chile.
Bastianello said the toll had been lowered from the 245 earlier believed to be killed.
Federal Health Minister Alexandre Padhilha told a news conference that most of the 117 people treated in hospitals had suffered intoxication from gases they breathed during the fire. Only a few suffered serious burns, he said.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff arrived to visit the injured after cutting short her trip to a Latin American-European summit in Chile.
"It is a tragedy for all of us," Rousseff said.
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.
"We ran into a barrier of the dead at the building's exit," Colonel Guido Pedroso de Melo, commander of the Santa Maria fire squad, said of the scene firefighters found on arrival. "We had to clear a path to get to the rest of those that were inside."
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.
Once security guards realized the building was on fire, they tried in vain to control the blaze with a fire extinguisher, according to a televised interview with one of the guards, Rodrigo Moura. He said patrons were getting trampled as they rushed for the doors, describing it as "a horror film."
One of the club's owners had already surrendered to police for questioning, GloboNews reported.
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 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation," Beltrame told The Associated Press by telephone.
"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, identified by the newspaper Diario de Santa Maria as 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 driving mixture of local Brazilian country music styles. It was not immediately clear if the band members were among the victims.
"Sad Sunday", tweeted Tarso Genro, the governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. He said all possible action was being taken and that he would be in the city later in the day.
Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer decreed a 30-day mourning period due to the nightclub disaster and Tarso Genro, the governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, said that all possible action was being taken.
Santa Maria is a major university city with a population of around a quarter of a million.
A welding accident reportedly set off a Dec. 25, 2000, fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309.
At least 194 people died at an overcrowded working-class nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2004. Seven members the band were sentenced to prison for setting off the blaze.
A blaze at the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm, Russia, broke out on Dec. 5, 2009, when an indoor fireworks display ignited a plastic ceiling decorated with branches, killing 152
A nightclub fire in the U.S. state of Rhode Island in 2003 killed 100 people after pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling.
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