Penny-pinching by a band known for its onstage pyrotechnic displays may have cost more than 230 people their lives at a nightclub in southern Brazil, according to a police inspector leading the investigation into this weekend's deadly blaze.
Inspector Marcelo Arigony told reporters at a news conference Tuesday that members of the band knowingly purchased flares meant for outdoor use because they cost a mere $1.25 a piece, compared with the $35 price tag for an indoor flare.
"The flare lit was for outdoor use only, and the people who lit them know that," said Arigony, adding that members of the group acknowledged regularly opting for the less-expensive flares. "They chose to buy those because they were cheaper than those that can be used indoors."
Arigony, whose cousin died in the fire, added: "The pyrotechnics were part of their show — the guys even wore gloves onstage so they wouldn't burn their hands."
The repercussions of the band's choice to use flares continued to send shock waves through Santa Maria, a college town of 260,000 people that's been stunned by the early Sunday morning tragedy in the Kiss nightclub.
The Rio Grande do Sul state forensics department raised the death toll Tuesday from 231 to 234 to account for three victims who did not appear on the original list of the dead. Authorities say more than 120 people remain hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns, with dozens of them in critical condition.
Club packed beyond capacity
The blaze began at around 2:30 am local time, during a performance by Gurizada Fandangueira, a country music band that had made the use of pyrotechnics a trademark of their shows. The band's guitarist told media that the 6,650-square-foot club was packed with an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 people. The police have said the capacity for a club of that size is under 700 people.
Police said the club's ceiling was covered with insulating foam made from a combustible material that appeared to have ignited after it came in contact with a spark from a flare lit during the performance.
After the fire extinguisher malfunctioned, the blaze spread throughout the packed club at lightning speed, emitting a thick, toxic smoke. Because Kiss apparently had neither an alarm nor a sprinkler system and only one working exit, the crowd was left to search desperately for a way out.
About 50 of the victims were found in the club's two bathrooms, where the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.
Police investigator Arigony said people headed to the bathrooms because the only lights in the dark club were coming from there, and the patrons mistook them for exits. The foam, which emitted a toxic gas, was not proper soundproofing equipment and was likely only used to cut down on the echo inside the club, Arigony said.
He added that a full analysis of the foam was ongoing. The malfunctioning fire extinguisher was not legal, he said, and the club's operating licence had expired in August.
"There were diverse irregularities," Arigony said. "Any child could have seen that this establishment should not have been open."
Outraged locals, mostly young people like those who died in the blaze, marched through Santa Maria Tuesday to demand justice for the dead, an unusual move in a country where public protests are rare. The demonstration interrupted the police news conference, even as Arigony pledged to investigate everyone involved in the tragedy — including the authorities charged with making sure such establishments are up to code, such as firefighters and city officials.
"There could have been an administrative failure in the mayor's office or with the firefighters," he said. "We have no proof, but we will investigate, we will look into everything."
No charges have been filed. Under Brazilian law, prosecutors can only file charges after police complete their investigation, which in this case could take 30 days. Prosecutors have said manslaughter charges could be filed.
The fire inspired nationwide action, and several mayors said they would crack down on nightclubs and other venues in their cities.