The fire that tore through the crowded nightclub Kiss in the city of Santa Maria last weekend came as a profound blow to Brazil, where for several years a growing prosperity has fueled a broad sense of optimism. More than 230 people, many of them college students, perished as they frantically tried to escape the fire. The likely consequences — including a criminal trial of those directly involved, calls for stronger fire safety regulations, and possible political repercussions for local officials and even President Dilma Rousseff — are a reminder that a nation’s emergence is marked not just by growing influence on the global scene, but by its ability to protect citizens from the hazards of life.
The catastrophe in Santa Maria had an unusual resonance in New England. That’s partly because nearly 350,000 Brazilians live in the area, forming one of its largest immigrant communities. But it’s also because of the region’s own experience of two horrifying nightclub fires — each of which taught lessons that might have saved lives if observed in Santa Maria. The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston 70 years ago illustrated the necessity not just of multiple exits, but also of strong enforcement of safety rules; at Kiss, like at the Bay Village nightclub of the 1940s, emergency exits were locked. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the 2003 nightclub fire at The Station in West Warwick, R.I.; 100 people died in that event, which began, like the fire in Santa Maria, when a band used pyrotechnics in too constricted an indoor setting.
The Station fire remains fresh in the minds of survivors, first responders, and the state of Rhode Island. Much has changed since then, a small comfort now to Santa Maria residents, showing how policies can adapt in the wake of horror. Rhode Island now has the toughest fire safety codes in the nation. It can be a model for other states, as well as the world. From our own tragedies, unfortunately, New England has a lot of knowledge to share.