Survivors of the Kiss nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil have described how a night of partying turned to desperate scenes of terror as flames tore rapidly through the crowded venue.
Witnesses among the hundreds of mostly student revellers said the fire began just after 02:15, when a member of a band playing at the nightclub started a pyrotechnic display of some kind, setting fire to part of the stage.
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins told Radio Gaucha that the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, started playing “and we had played around five songs when I looked up and noticed the roof was burning”.
“It might have happened because of the Sputnik, the machine we use to create a luminous effect with sparks,” he said.
“When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher, the singer tried to use it but it wasn’t working.”
Watching from the crowd was Ingrid Goldani, 20, who told local newspaper Diario de Santa Maria that the band first “tried to put out the fire with water, but they didn’t manage to”.
She said that it took under three minutes for what had initially seemed an innocuous mishap to flare into an uncontrolled blaze, billowing smoke.
‘Guards kept door shut’
Fernanda Freire Gomes Bona, 23, the nightclub’s photographer, was in a VIP area when the fire started.
“Because I was near to the door, I ran out,” she told Globo newspaper.
“Someone had called me over to take some photos in the VIP area. Because of this I was there, it has a better view. Normally I stay in the middle of the crowd. It was luck. If I wasn’t working, I wouldn’t have been in the VIP area.”
She too saw the band member with the flare or firework: “I saw some sparks, lots of shouting, and I thought it was some kind of fight.
“That’s when they shouted ‘Fire!’. I saw people running… and I ran out too.”
According to Murilo de Toledo Tiecher, a 26-year-old medical student, security guards did not initially understand what was happening and tried to stop people leaving.
“People were screaming ‘there’s a fire’ but the security guards didn’t budge and tried to keep the door shut,” he told told Zero Hora newspaper.
“Five or six people knocked over one security guard and knocked down the door. It was the only exit.
“The first people to get out tried to pull out whoever was still inside. Hands and arms appeared from the curtain of smoke. We pulled out various people. I pulled out a girl by the hair. It was chaos, the worst desperation.”
Student Thaise Brenner, 27, was already leaving the club as she heard the first cries of “fire, fire”.
She said the bouncers “had their arms opened in front of us, asking us to move”, and that she only escaped the club by pushing “my way out through [one of the bouncers’] legs”.
“We were told that the bouncers closed this main door to force people to pay before leaving, but we didn’t see it,” she added.
“What I saw was that, after the first group left – about 50 of us – there was what felt like a long time before more people started to come out.”
Other eyewitnesses said that once the security guards realised how serious the fire was, they tried to help people escape.
Police inspector Marcelo Arigony, who attended the disaster scene, said the guards didn’t appear to block fleeing patrons for long. “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.
Survivor Fernanda Oliviera told local television that “when the fired started the security guys went to check what it was and then quickly they started helping us…but it was all too quick”.
For those initially unaware of the danger, or stuck deep inside the dark venue, chances of escape rapidly diminished.
Taynne Vendruscolo, another survivor, told reporters: “Everyone was pushing and shoving. The fire started out small, but within seconds it exploded. Those who were close to the stage could not get out.”
Leonardo da Rosa was dancing when he saw what looked like “a big disturbance”.
“I thought it was a fight, so I walked away, looked behind me and I saw the fire starting.”
“The curtains started burning and the stage was made of wood, so the stage started burning. So people started running, trying to get out of the club, but they couldn’t… The smoke spreads very quickly, in a matter of seconds. I only stayed there seconds but it felt like an eternity.”
Luana Santos Silva, 23, managed to escape with the help of her sister, Aline, 29, who dragged her “out on the ground” to safety.
She described the main exit as a “small door for lots of people to come out by”.
Aline added: “We managed to see it in time and to get out quickly, before the smoke began to spread. The smoke spread really quickly, it didn’t give enough time for people.”
Dr Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria, went to the city’s Caridade Hospital to help victims and said the “large amounts of toxic smoke” caused “at least 90%” of the deaths.
“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,” the doctor told AP.
“Apparently they confused the bathroom door with the exit door.”
Chaos on street
The pandemonium from inside the club soon spread to outside the building.
“The metal barriers they used to keep people in line on their way in, ended up blocking people from getting out,” Mattheus Bortolotto, a young dentist, told local TV.
“People were bumping into each other, crushing each other, falling down.”
Those who survived, or who merely witnessed the aftermath, spoke of feeling traumatised.
“I saw victims who had one side of their face melted,” Max Muller, who was walking by as the chaos unfolded.
“It is hard to forget what I saw,” he told news agency AFP.
“People who were trying to get out who stopped to give other people CPR – except they didn’t know how to do it, and they were breaking people’s bones.
“It is horrible to see so many dead people, kids, on the ground; people crying, other people throwing up, who can’t breathe. Some were ripping people’s clothes off to do CPR but had no idea what they were doing,” he recalled.
“A friend of mine managed to get out but then had a heart attack and died,” Ana Paula Miller, a 19-year-old engineering student, told AFP.
Some of the most harrowing testimony cam from the emergency services who attended the scene.
Police inspector Sandro Meinerz told AP: “It was terrible inside – it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another.
“We had to use trucks to remove them. It took about six hours to take the bodies away.”
Firefighters responding to the blaze initially had trouble getting inside the Kiss nightclub 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.