SANTA MARIA, Brazil — Penny-pinching by a band known for its onstage pyrotechnic displays may have cost more than 230 people their lives at a nightclub in southern Brazil, according to a police inspector leading the investigation into the deadly blaze.
Marcelo Arigony said Tuesday that members of the band knowingly purchased flares meant for outdoor use because they cost a mere $1.25 a piece, compared with the $35 price tag for an indoor flare.
“The flare lit was for outdoor use only, and the people who lit them know that,” said Arigony, adding that group members acknowledged regularly opting for the less expensive flares. “They chose to buy those because they were cheaper than those that can be used indoors.”
The repercussions of that choice continued to send shock waves through Santa Maria, a college town of 260,000 people that has been stunned by the early Sunday morning tragedy in the Kiss nightclub.
The Rio Grande do Sul state forensics department raised the death toll Tuesday from 231 to 234 to account for three victims who did not appear on the original list of the dead. Authorities say more than 120 people remain hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns, with dozens in critical condition.
The blaze began around 2:30 a.m., during a performance by Gurizada Fandangueira, a country music band that made the use of pyrotechnics a trademark of its shows.
Police said the club’s ceiling was covered with an insulating foam made from a combustible material that appeared to have ignited after it came in contact with a spark from a flare lit during the performance.
After the fire extinguisher malfunctioned, the blaze spread through the packed club at lightning speed, emitting a thick, toxic smoke. Because Kiss apparently had neither an alarm nor a sprinkler system and only one working exit, the crowd was left to search desperately for a way out.
About 50 of the victims were found in the club’s two bathrooms, where the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.
Arigony said people headed to the bathrooms because the only lights in the dark club were coming from there, and the patrons mistook them for exits.
The foam, which emitted a toxic gas, was not proper soundproofing equipment and was probably only used to cut down on the echo inside the club, Arigony said.
He added that a full analysis of the foam was ongoing. The malfunctioning fire extinguisher was not legal, he said, and the club’s operating license had expired in August.
“There were diverse irregularities,” Arigony said. “Any child could have seen that this establishment should not have been open.”
Outraged residents marched through Santa Maria on Tuesday to demand justice for the dead, an unusual move in a country where public protests are rare. The demonstration interrupted the police press conference, even as Arigony pledged to investigate everyone involved in the tragedy — including the authorities charged with making sure such establishments are up to code, such as firefighters and city officials.
The fire inspired nationwide action, and several mayors said they would crack down on nightclubs and other venues in their cities.
The government of the country’s biggest city, Sao Paulo, promised tougher security regulations for nightclubs and other places where many people gather. The mayor of Americana, Sao Paulo state, ordered the temporary shutdown of 10 of the city’s nightclubs. Mayor Diego de Nadai suspended the operating permits of the nightclubs pending inspections into the fire and accident prevention measures in place, local media reported.
The Folha d S. Paulo newspaper reported that in Manaus, nightclubs with empty fire extinguishers and unmarked emergency exits have been shut down and fined. And in Rio de Janeiro, a consumer complaint hotline has received more than 60 calls since Sunday’s tragedy denouncing hazardous conditions at night spots, theaters, supermarkets, schools, hospitals, and shopping malls around the state. Blocked emergency exits and nonexistent fire alarms and extinguishers top the list of most common complaints.