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February 8, 2013

Brazil club fire: errors and progress

by: Anne McGinness Kearse

The Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, was destroyed by a tragic fire early Sunday morning, leading to the deaths of more than 230 people. Many reportedly died from smoke inhalation; others were trampled trying to leave the one exit. Hundreds more remain hospitalized, including many in critical condition. Most of the victims, some minors, were students under 20 years old from the local Federal University of Santa Maria.

According to reports, the club was filled beyond its legal capacity, with a crowd of approximately 2,000 people crammed into the club to hear a band play. Authorities have said that the pyrotechnics the band used were for outdoor use only and were what triggered the blaze. With unanswered questions about who is responsible, the broader focus has turned to why and how the safety regulations in the nightclub were allegedly violated so severely. To date, three arrests have been made in connection to the blaze. Both criminal and civil investigations are pending.

Below are just some of the safety problems connected to this fire that are raising concern about safety regulation and enforcements in venues such as clubs and other highly populated areas:

  • The club's original license permitted just 691 people inside, but the club allowed more than double the maximum capacity—allowing approximately 2,000 people inside.
  • The club’s fire permit expired in August 2012. Because the club was in the process of renewing it, authorities had not shut it down.
  • The club only had one working exit, and investigators found evidence of faulty or fake fire extinguishers. According to state safety codes. Clubs are supposed to have one fire extinguisher every 1,500 square feet and multiple emergency exits.
  • Poorly posted signage caused patrons to mistake restroom signs for exit signs.
  • Security guards, apparently unaware that a fire had started, stopped the rush of people trying to exit the nightclub.
  • The band was permitted to use pyrotechnic devices in a confined public space.
  • The ceiling of the club was lined with sound-proofing material that fire inspectors in the U.S. would have identified as dangerously inflammable.

Even the most basic regulations being properly enforced could have potentially prevented this tragedy and saved the lives of hundreds of young people. The list of alleged failures that led to Sunday night’s fire sounds all too familiar and reminds me of the devastating 2003 Rhode Island fire. On Feb. 21, 2003, at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., during a Great White performance, pyrotechnics set fire to flammable soundproofing foam that lined the walls and ceiling, killing 100 and injuring 200.

The similarities between the Kiss club fire and The Station nightclub fire stirs memories and serve as a painful reminder of the outcome when regulations and proper safety precautions are ignored.

My thoughts are with the victims of this tragedy and anyone who has lost a loved one in a catastrophe. Hopefully, events such as this will encourage greater fire safety advocacy efforts to help prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.