At least 233 people were killed early Sunday morning after a band’s pyrotechnics sparked a rapidly moving fire in an overly packed nightclub with too few exits in southern Brazil.
Major Gerson da Rosa Ferreira, who led rescue efforts for the military police at the Kiss nightclub, told Reuters that the victims died from suffocation or from being trampled on when trying to flee.
The bodies removed from the nightclub in the southern university town of Santa Maria were taken to the Municipal Sports Center gymnasium for identification, police said.
In addition to the deaths, more than 100 people were injured and most remain hospitalized. The band, an upbeat pop act called Gurizada Fandangueira that performed once a month at the nightclub, reportedly lost one member in the fire. The effects were a routine part of the band’s act.
Fire brigade colonel Guido Pedroso de Melo told O Globo newspaper that rescuers had difficulty entering the premises because of "a barrier of bodies" at the entrance to the club.
According to the newspaper Diario de Santa Maria, a security guard at the club said it was at its capacity between 1,000 and 2,000 people, but police estimated the crowd at about 900.
Fire officials said at least one exit was locked after club bouncers, who thought those fleeing were trying to skip out on bar tabs, blocked patrons from leaving.
"It was really fast. There was a lot of smoke, really dark smoke," survivor Aline Santos Silva, 29, told Globonews TV. "We were only able to get out quickly because we were in a VIP area close to the door."
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who was in Chile at the time, rushed home when she heard about the tragedy to visit families of the victims who gathered at the Municipal Sports Center to identify the bodies.
Rousseff declared a national three-day mourning period for victims of the fire.