January 28, 2013

Arrests made in Brazilian club fire; funerals begin

Juliana Barbassa / The Associated Press

SANTA MARIA, Brazil — Brazilian police say they've made three arrests and are seeking a fourth person in connection with a nightclub fire that killed more than 230 people.

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A woman cries over the coffin of her boyfriend at a gymnasium where bodies were brought for identification in Santa Maria, Brazil, on Sunday. They were both at the Kiss nightclub when flames raced through the crowded club.

AP

Inspector Ranolfo Vieira Junior said at a Monday press conference that the arrests are for investigative purposes. He says the detentions have five-day limits.

He declined to identify those arrested or the fourth person sought.

A total of 233 people died early Sunday during the fire at a university party in the southern Brazil city of Santa Maria. Police have said they think a band's pyrotechnics show ignited sound insulation on the ceiling, causing the blaze.

The Zero Hora newspaper quotes lawyer Jader Marques as saying his client Elissandro Spohr, a co-owner of the club, was arrested. The paper also says two band members were arrested.

As the city in southern Brazil prepared to bury the people killed in the conflagration, an early investigation into the tragedy revealed that security guards briefly prevented partygoers from leaving through the sole exit. And the bodies later heaped inside that doorway slowed firefighters trying to get in.

"It was terrible inside — it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another," said police inspector Sandro Meinerz. "We had to use trucks to remove them. It took about six hours to take the bodies away."

Survivors and another police inspector, Marcelo Arigony, said security guards briefly tried to block people from exiting the club. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they are allowed to leave.

"It was chaotic and it doesn't seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died," he told The Associated Press.

Later, firefighters responding to the blaze initially had trouble entering the club because "there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance," Guido Pedroso Melo, commander of the city's fire department, told the O Globo newspaper.

Police inspectors said they think the source of the blaze was a band's small pyrotechnics show. The fire broke out sometime before 3 a.m. Sunday and the fast-moving fire and toxic smoke created by burning foam sound insulation material on the ceiling engulfed the club within seconds.

Authorities said band members who were on the stage when the fire broke out later talked with police and confirmed they used pyrotechnics during their show.

Meinerz, who coordinated the investigation at the nightclub, said one band member died after escaping because he returned inside the burning building to save his accordion. The other band members escaped alive because they were the first to notice the fire.

The fire spread so fast inside the packed club that firefighters and ambulances could do little to stop it, survivor Luana Santos Silva told the Globo TV network.

"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," she said.

Most victims died from smoke inhalation rather than burns. Many of the dead, about equally split between young men and women, were also found in the club's two bathrooms, where they fled apparently because the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.

There were questions about the club's operating license. Police said it was in the process of being renewed, but it was not clear if it was illegal for the business to be open. A single entrance area about the size of five door spaces was used both as an entrance and an exit.

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