Nightclub fire casts doubt on Brazil safety laws

MARCO SIBAJA Associated Press Published:

SANTA MARIA, Brazil (AP) -- The number of injured in a weekend nightclub fire in Brazil jumped to 143 after 22 people who seemed to escape the club unharmed were admitted to hospitals with respiratory problems, said the nation's Health Ministry Wednesday.

Health Minister Alexandre Padilha has urged survivors of Sunday's fire at the Kiss nightclub in the southern Brazilian college town of Santa Maria to remain alert for any symptoms of so-called "chemical pneumonia," which can take up to three days to develop following exposure to toxic smoke.

The fire claimed another life late Tuesday, raising the death toll to 235, as a 21-year-old man with burns covering 70 percent of his body succumbed to his wounds. Brazilian media reported that the man's brother was also killed in the fire.

Police and fire experts say the world's deadliest nightclub fire in 13 years was a disaster waiting to happen. The Kiss nightclub had no sprinkler system, a ceiling covered in flammable and toxic soundproofing foam and just one way in or out.

Nonetheless, those specific features didn't appear to break fire codes, raising questions about safety regulations in a nation set to host the World Cup and Olympic Games. Documents obtained by The Associated Press, including past building and fire safety plan permits issued to the Kiss club, showed that such deadly choices were within regulations.

"Do I agree with the fact that there was only one exit? No. Do I agree that the roof was covered with flammable material? No, I don't," said Maj. Gerson Pereira, an inspector with the local fire department. "I would have liked to shut down this place, but then the firefighters could be sued" because no law had been broken.

The same documents also illustrate that other regulations were broken, including irregularities in the fire safety inspection of the club, as well as violations by the band the club hired whose pyrotechnics are blamed for causing the blaze. Police inspectors say any of the violations were reason enough to shut the club down.

One document shows the club had already been labeled by fire officials as being at "medium" risk for having a fire. By state law, that designation requires that the club undergo annual inspections. But records show that the last inspection took place in August 2011.

Survivors of the fire have said that the club's fire extinguishers failed to work in early attempts to battle the blaze. Under state law, an extinguisher must have a receipt showing that it had been independently inspected within a year.

Marcelo Arigony, the lead police investigator in the case, said in a Tuesday press conference that it was clear the fire extinguishers had not been inspected and that they were clearly cheap models that should not be used anywhere.

Perhaps most egregious was what authorities point to as the cause of the fire.

The blaze began at around 2:30 a.m. local time during a performance by Gurizada Fandangueira, a country music band that had made the use of pyrotechnics a trademark of their shows. The band's guitarist told media that the 615-square-meter (6,650-square-foot) club was packed with an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 people, the same estimate police have given. Capacity for the club, however, is under 700.

Police said that members of the band knowingly bought flares meant for outdoor use because they cost a mere $1.25 a piece, compared with the $35 price tag for an indoor flare.

"It's not that this club was working to come within this or that law -- the place should have never been open in the first place," Arigony said. "This is a problem that is seen across Brazil, these laws. I can only hope this tragedy brings about change."

Jaime Moncada, a U.S.-based fire-safety consultant with nearly three decades experience in Latin America including large projects in Brazil, said he was not surprised that one exit was permissible under local law.

Shown a blueprint of the club obtained by the AP, he calculated that the farthest point from the front door was 105 feet (32 meters), and regulations in most Brazilian states dictate that a second exit is required only if the distance is 131 feet (40 meters) or more.

For the same reason of distance, Moncada said sprinklers and alarms would not be required.

"For an American audience, it is crazy to think that a place would have only one exit," he said.

In Brazil, he added, that would be the norm.

In the United States, the club would have failed an inspection in at least three ways, according to Moncada: Three separate exits would have been required; the foam would need to be treated with a fire retardant; and it would need sprinklers.

Brazil is the globe's fifth-largest economy by some measures, but it lags far behind others in terms of fire safety standards, according to several fire-safety experts with experience here.

One reason: State laws are written by fire-fighting officials who do not seek input from engineers specializing in areas such as fire dynamics, how flames affect different materials and computer models that can devise the best evacuation procedures, according to Rodrigo Machado Tavares, an engineer and fire-safety consultant based in Sao Paulo.

What's more, state, city and expert groups can offer conflicting suggestions.

In Sao Paulo -- where a series of large fires in the 1970s prompted an early round of safety regulations that became a model nationally -- there are three ways to calculate how wide a staircase needs to be for safe evacuation, Tavares said.

"You'll get three different numbers; it's very confusing," he said.

And enforcement often is lacking. In academic research, Tavares found that in the northeastern port city of Recife, most buildings do not have the required fire alarms. It's the same in much of Brazil, he said.

Amid the shock of what was the world's deadliest nightclub fire in a decade, changes in Brazil seemed on the horizon.

In Brasilia, the nation's capital, lawmakers in the lower house worked on a proposal that would require federal safety minimum standards across Brazil. Now states individually create such laws. The O Globo newspaper reported on its website that the mayor's office in Santa Maria ordered all nightclubs closed for 30 days while inspections are carried out.

Elsewhere, the government of the country's biggest city, Sao Paulo, set to host the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, promised tougher security regulations for nightclubs.

The Folha de S. Paulo newspaper reported that in Manaus, which will also host World Cup matches, nightclubs with empty fire extinguishers and unmarked emergency exits have been shut down and fined. And in Olympic host city, 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.

Outraged citizens in Santa Maria are demanding change.

Elise Parode, an 18-year-old student taking part in a protest before City Hall, chanted with all her might along with about 500 others, pushing up against the door of the building as municipal guards kept them from entering.

"We want justice! We want the government held accountable, just like the owners of the bar!" she yelled as the crowd around held aloft poster-size photos of the fire's victims. "Our own government doesn't know the laws -- we're not safe until they do."

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Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks in Santa Maria and Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed to this report.