BRAZILIAN police have detained the owners of the nightclub where 231 people died in a fire, as well as two members of a band whose pyrotechnics may have triggered the blaze.
No charges were filed against the four men yesterday, but prosecutors said they could be held for up to five days as police investigate how the fire, in the early hours of Sunday morning, caused so many deaths.
Stunned residents in the southern city of Santa Maria began attending a marathon of funerals in the pre-dawn hours yesterday. Many of the dead were university students who knew each other. Coffins – many draped with flags of the victims’ favourite football teams – lined a gymnasium that has been used as a makeshift morgue.
Most of the dead were suffocated by fumes that rapidly filled the Kiss nightclub after the band playing set off a flare at about 2:30am on Sunday, authorities said.
Witnesses said bouncers initially blocked the only functioning exit because they believed fleeing customers were trying to avoid paying their bar tabs.
The club’s operating licence was in the process of being renewed after expiring last year.
Tarso Genro, governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul where the disaster occurred, vowed: “We’re going to find out who was responsible.”
President Dilma Rousseff was seen to be visibly upset during a visit to the scene on Sunday.
The death toll was revised down to 231 from 233 as officials said some names had been counted twice. Eighty-two people remained in hospital, at least 30 of them in serious condition.
Brazil is due to host the 2014 World Cup football tournament and 2016 Olympic Games, putting its safety standards and emergency response capabilities in the international spotlight.
Relatives and friends of the dead have demanded accountability, signalling the start of a wave of investigations and lawsuits that could drag on for months or even years.
“We can’t trust in the ability of city hall, or the police, or anybody who permits a party with more than 1,000 people under these conditions,” said Erica Weber, who was accompanying her daughter to the funeral of a classmate.
Based on witness statements, investigators are now certain that the band’s pyrotechnics show triggered the blaze, police official Sandro Meinerz said.
However, he added that initial reports that the club was operating beyond its capacity of 1,000 people were likely to be false.
“Witnesses said the club wasn’t as full as it had been in previous weeks, which surely avoided an even greater tragedy,” Mr Meinerz said.
The band’s guitarist, Rodrigo Lemos Martins, 32, said he doubted the band was responsible for the blaze. “There were lots of wires [in the ceiling], maybe it was a short circuit,” one newspaper quoted him as saying.
The band’s accordion player, Danilo Jaques, 30, was among those killed, apparently after attempting to retrieve his instrument. The other five members survived.
Singer Marcelo de Jesus dos Santos and production engineer Luciano Bonilha, who police believed were responsible for firing the flare, were taken into custody, according to Brazilian media.
It seems certain others will share the blame for Brazil’s second-deadliest fire ever. The use of a flare inside the club was a clear breach of security regulations, fire officials said. But some details may never be known – Mr Meinerz said the club’s owner said its internal video surveillance system had stopped working three months ago.
Civil lawsuits are likely to be directed at the government, because the owners of the nightclub probably don’t have much money, said Brazilian lawyer Carlos Castello de Campos.