Brazil Nightclub Fire: Police Arrest 3 in Santa Maria

Owner of nightclub, a member of the band and club's security chief questioned.

ByABC News
January 28, 2013, 1:58 AM

Jan. 28, 2013— -- Brazilian authorities have arrested three people in connection to the fire that killed more than 230 people and injured hundreds at a nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, this weekend.

The owner of the popular Kiss nightclub, a member of the band Gurizada Fandangueira and the club's security chief have been arrested and are being questioned by police, the BBC reported today.

A fourth person, who the BBC reports is a co-owner of the club, is still being sought by police.

None of the names of those arrested and being sought have been released.

Coffins lined a gymnasium in Santa Maria today as family members tried to identify their loved ones after a fast-moving fire tore through a crowded nightclub Sunday morning.

A community gym near the Kiss nightclub has been converted to a temporary morgue were family members were led in one by one Sunday night and early this morning to identify the dead. Outside the gym police held up personal objects, including a black purse and blue high-heeled shoe, as people seeking information on loved ones crowded around, hoping not to recognize anything they were being shown.

"Doctors from other parts of Brazil were flown in to assist the medical side of this," BBC reporter Julia Carneiro told ABC News this morning. "One hundred people are injured and in hospital. Some have been flown to other cities that have better hospital capacity."

PHOTOS: Santa Maria, Brazil Nightclub Fire

Flames and smoke outraced a terrified crowd at the Kiss nightclub, located in the southern city of Santa Maria, shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday morning. Panicked partygoers tried to outrun flames and black, thick smoke, but the club appeared to have only one open exit, police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello told The Associated Press.

Police confirmed that the toll had risen to 231 with the death of a hospitalized victim.

Hours after the fire, cellphones on the victims were ringing inside the still-smoldering nightclub as family members tried to contact their loved ones, Brazilian radio reporter Sara Bodowsky told "World News" anchor David Muir.

"It's really like a war zone in here. We have [over 230] bodies laid down, side by side, so the families go inside one by one. They look at the bodies," Bodowsky said.

The first funerals for the victims were scheduled to begin later today for those families who have identified their loved ones.

"It was terrible inside. It was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another," police inspector Sandro Meinerz said Sunday. "We had to use trucks to remove them. It took about six hours to take the bodies away."

Investigators believe the blaze began when a band's small pyrotechnics show ignited foam sound insulating material on the ceiling, releasing a putrid haze that caused scores of people to choke to death.

Survivors and police inspector Marcelo Arigony said security guards briefly tried to block people from exiting the club in the mass confusion and chaos moments after the fire began.

But Arigony said the guards didn't appear to block fleeing patrons for long.

"It was chaotic and it doesn't seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died," he told the AP.

Police Maj. Bastianello told the AP by telephone the death toll was likely made worse because the nightclub appeared to have just one exit through which patrons could exit.

A security guard told the newspaper Diaro de Santa Maria that the club was filled to capacity, with 1,000 to 2,000 people inside.

Meanwhile, people outside tried to break through walls to get in to save those trapped inside.

Michele Pereira told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit some sort of flare.

"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 his 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," he said. "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.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was attending a summit with European Union leaders and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Chile, cut her trip short and returned home to Brazil Sunday.