Police investigators and firefighters are still combing for victims and clues through the charred ruins of the Brazilian nightclub that caught fire this morning, but already the casualty list is staggering. According to civil defense teams and local media, some 232 people were confirmed dead and another 200 injured in the blaze that swept through the crowded club where college students were partying in Santa Maria, a town of 260,000 in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Though the official cause of the tragedy won’t be known for days, Brazilian media have quoted witnesses saying that the fire broke out when a member of the band, Gurizada Fandagueira, performing at the club Kiss, shot off an emergency flare, striking the club roof covered with acoustic foam, which immediately burst into flames.
Officials are reporting this as the biggest tragedy in memory in this southernmost Brazilian state, famous mostly for its fertile agricultural soils and fashion models, like Gisele Bundchen.
Eyewitnesses told reporters that an estimated 2,000 young men and women were inside the club at the time the fire broke out, at around 2:30 a.m. It took firefighters three hours to control the blaze, which covered this tidy city in a pall of black smoke.
Rescue crews scoured the destroyed nightclub for victims, administering first aid to the stricken youths on the pavement or on street benches before speeding them to local hospitals. Before dawn, the streets were thronged with relatives of missing loved ones.
Though known as an orderly and affluent city, which boasts several universities and a large number of public employees, Santa Maria reeled at the scope of the tragedy. Emergency rooms were quickly overwhelmed and the city morgue had to set up a makeshift mortuary in a municipal gymnasium.
Arriving by the truckload, the bodies were laid out on the floor of the Municipal Sports Center, while forensic teams tried to match the victims one by one with their photo IDs and cellphones, which rang nonstop throughout the morning.