By Juliana Barbassa and Marco Sibaja Associated Press
SANTA MARIA, Brazil — A fast-moving fire roared through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, within seconds filling the space with flames and a thick, toxic smoke that killed more than 230 panicked partygoers who gasped for breath and fought in a stampede to escape.
It appeared to be the world’s deadliest nightclub fire in more than a decade.
Firefighters responding to the blaze at first had trouble getting inside the Kiss nightclub because bodies partially blocked the club’s entryway.
Witnesses said a flare or firework lit by band members started the blaze in Santa Maria, a university city of about 260,000 people. Officials at a news conference said the cause was still under investigation — though police inspector Sandro Meinerz told the Agencia Estado news agency the band was to blame for a pyrotechnics show and that manslaughter charges could be filed.
Television images showed black smoke billowing out of the Kiss nightclub as shirtless young men who had attended a university party joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at windows and hot-pink exterior walls to free those trapped inside.
Bodies of the dead and injured were strewn in the street and panicked screams filled the air as medics tried to help. There was little to be done; officials said most of those who died were suffocated by smoke within minutes.
Within hours a community gym was a horror scene, with body after body lined up on the floor, partially covered with black plastic as family members identified kin. Outside the gym police held up personal objects — a black purse, a blue high-heeled shoe — as people seeking information on loved ones crowded around.
Guido Pedroso Melo, commander of the city’s fire department, told the O Globo newspaper that firefighters had a hard time getting inside the club because “there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance.”
Many of the victims were under 20 years old, including some minors.
A survivor, Michele Pereira, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit flares that started the conflagration.
“The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward,” she said. “At that point, the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak, but in a matter of seconds it spread.”
Guitarist Rodrigo Martins told Radio Gaucha that the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, started playing at 2:15 a.m. “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. It’s harmless, we never had any trouble with it.
“When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher, the singer tried to use it but it wasn’t working.”
He confirmed that accordion player Danilo Jacques, 28, died, while the five other members made it out safely.
Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by telephone that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim. He said earlier that the death toll was likely made worse because the nightclub appeared to have just one exit.
Survivors said security guards briefly tried to block people from leaving. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they are allowed to leave.
Federal Health Minister Alexandre Padhilha told a news conference that most of the 117 people treated in hospitals had been poisoned by gases they breathed during the fire. Only a few had serious burns, he said.
Most of the dead apparently were asphyxiated, according to Dr. Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria who went to the city’s Caridade Hospital to help victims.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff visited the injured after cutting short her trip to a Latin American-European summit in Chile.
Sunday’s fire appeared to be the worst at a nightclub since December 2000, when a welding accident reportedly set off a fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309. In 2004, at least 194 people died in a fire at an overcrowded nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A blaze at the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm, Russia, killed 152 people in December 2009.
In 2003, pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling of a Rhode Island music venue.