This week, I bring you to the city of Santa Maria, in the south of Brazil, a college town of more than 260,000 residence. On January 26, 2013, a party organised by students was to be held at the Kiss nightclub. Many of the students from local universities and colleges were to attend. Sadly, this venue would soon become the scene of a deadly nightclub fire.
At the time of the fire, an estimated 1200 to 1400 clubgoers filled the 615 m2 club. As the evening drove forward and into the early hours of Sunday, January 27, the packed club was settled, listening to a country music band performing. At 0315 am, as part of their performance routine, the band let off pyrotechnics on stage. According to the guitarist “we had played around five songs when I looked up and noticed the roof was burning”.
Sadly, as we have seen in previous fire disasters, the flammable and toxic foam soundproofing on the ceiling ignited. From eyewitness accounts, a security guard passed a fire extinguisher to the band in the early stages of fire growth. But the extinguisher failed to operate. The band had also tried to extinguish the fire with some water in an unsuccessful bid.
Within three minutes, the blaze spread throughout the packed club, emitting thick, toxic smoke, heavy with hydrogen cyanide and CO. Those inside rushed to escape, however, the level of smoke may have caused disorientation, as many clubgoers may have mistaken toilet facility doors for an emergency exit, with 50 people entering the toilets and dying inside.
As security guards did not initially understand what was going on, they tried to prevent the clubgoers from leaving because they had not paid their bar tab. At one stage, five or six frantic clubgoers pushed a security guard over and left the club. Multiple sources stated that once security guards realised how serious the situation was, they tried to help people escape, with several guards dying in the blaze.
By 0322 am the fire department arrived on the scene. Firefighters responding initially had trouble getting inside the nightclub because “there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance”. With the help of brave partygoers, firefighters knocked out holes in the external club walls and smashed windows to try to help people to escape. Around 168 clubgoers were hospitalised for smoke inhalation, burns and crush injuries, with dozens left in a critical condition.
Tragically, 230 young people died at the scene, while 12 more would die in hospital. Most of the deceased were 18 to 21 years old. Sadly, five people died from going back into the club to rescue others. Government officials estimated that at least half of the dead were students, 101 from one local university in Santa Maria.
Outraged citizens carried out protests in the following days, demanding change.
Stunned residents in the southern city of Santa Maria attended a marathon of funerals beginning in the pre-dawn hours. After sunset, thousands joined a procession through the streets of the city, dressed in white and wearing black arm bands. In the immediate aftermath, the Mayor’s office in Santa Maria ordered all nightclubs close for 30 days while inspections were carried out.
So, why did this fire occur, like all disasters, this case had a multitude of factors that combined to form the horrific loss of life.
During the lengthy investigation process, the level of club occupancy was used as a factor in contributing to the severity of the disaster and hence in apportioning responsibility. Another issue that had been raised is whether more exits would have made a material difference to the outcome.
From what I understand to be the fire certificate, the club is credited with having two emergency exits — hence three exits in total, one main and two emergency exits.
According to a Brazilian fire safety consultant based in Sao Paulo, he suggested that the local fire codes would require the Kiss nightclub to have: – three exits, – emergency lighting, – emergency exit signage, – and an alarm system. However, although there were two exits out of the club area, both doors merged into one front doorway.
Before the incident, fire officials labelled this club as medium risk for having a fire. By state law, that designation requires that the club undergo annual inspections. However, records show that the last inspection took place in August 2011.
This poses many serious questions concerning the licensing, inspection, and enforcement process in Brazil. One must ask if checks of the club were ever performed. If they were completed, how could an inspector not have seen that there was only one exit?
The nightclub should have at the very least a working smoke alarm, and sprinkler system installed. It sadly had neither. There was emergency lighting installed; however, reports state that it did not work on the night of the fire.
The fire certificate certified a licence for 691 people; but, on the night of the fire, it was estimated that any number from 1000 to 1500 clubgoers were in the building.
Police said that members of the band knowingly bought pyrotechnics meant for outdoor use because they were cheaper than indoor ones. The fire report also stated that 12 fire extinguishers were in the building, but there were seven at the time of the fire. Out of these seven extinguishers, at least one failed to operate.
Later investigations saw that these extinguishers had not been reviewed and that they were cheap counterfeits. Under local state law, an extinguisher must have a receipt showing that it had been independently inspected within a year for it to be acceptable. This was not the case!
Sixteen people were charged in connection with the fire, nine including two co-owners of the Kiss nightclub – face murder charges over the fatalities. Two members of the band allegedly responsible for lighting the pyrotechnics had been charged. The band initially claimed that they had not used fireworks but rather an electrical short circuit caused the fire.
The sister and mother of one of the co-owners, the club’s manager and two fire inspectors were also indicted with intentional homicide. There were seven additional charges relating to the fire, four for manslaughter, two for procedural fraud and one for perjury. After the fire, representatives of the National Fire Protection Association saw the devastation first-hand. They met with local officials to discuss how NFPA could help expedite the adoption of more stringent fire protection and life safety codes in Brazil.
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. Astonishingly, for a building of this size, sprinklers and alarms would not be required. This is sadly, the norm in Brazil. He also stated that if this nightclub was in the US, it would have failed an inspection in at least three ways, three separate exits would have been required; foam insulated ceilings would need to be treated with a fire retardant and sprinklers required.
Brazil is the globes fifth-largest economy, but it lags far behind others in terms of fire safety standards. One reason: fire-fighting officials write state laws. They do not seek input from engineers specialising in areas such as fire dynamics, how flames affect different materials and computer models that can devise the best evacuation procedures.
This fire exposed several deadly fire safety failings common in venues nationwide and prompted many to criticise authorities for failing to inspect the venues and suspend licences. In the wake of the fire, Brazils capital Brasília, lawmakers worked on a proposal that would require federal safety minimum standards across Brazil as a National standard. As currently, each state individually creates its own law.
In December 2013, the State of Rio Grande do Sul published new guidance based on recommendations already adopted by other Brazilian states.
So, amid the shock of what became the world’s deadliest nightclub fire in a decade, change was on the horizon for Brazil. On paper anyway! A state law called “Law Kiss”, was passed in 2014, establishing standards on safety, prevention, and protection against fire in buildings and areas of fire risk in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
In the years following the fire, there was a push throughout Brazil to strengthen codes and standards, the fire codes were updated and now includes more NFPA codes and standards than ever before. The Rio fire code directly references over 20 NFPA documents. An important step forward.
However, recent fires such as the September 12, 2019 hospital fire in Rio de Janeiro show cracks in the updated fire codes. Government records show Badim Hospital had a certificate of approval issued by the local fire department signifying that the hospital complied with local codes and standards. But that only means the facility was compliant at a single point in time. But the department does not make regular inspections to check whether already-approved facilities continue to comply with the code. Unfortunately, to this day, in Brazil, the continued inspection of properties and enforcement of codes is overlooked.
Before we finish up this episode, what remains clear is any time you mix large crowds of semi-intoxicated people with low levels of lighting, minimal exits, and the addition of toxic smoke, tragedy can occur.
When gathering in highly populated venues like nightclubs, we can protect ourselves, give ourselves the best chance of escaping if the worst should occur.
- Before entering a building, look to see if the occupancy makes you feel safe and comfortable.
- Be sure that doors open outward, and exits are clear.
- When you enter, look for all available exits, most attempt to exit from the same place they entered when another exit is often closer and less crowded.
- If you feel unsafe, leave immediately,
So, on that note, we will leave it there. Thanks for listening, and Be safe out there.