SANTA MARIA, Brazil (Reuters) - A fire in a nightclub killed at least 232 people in southern Brazil on Sunday when a band's pyrotechnics show set the building ablaze and fleeing partygoers stampeded toward blocked and overcrowded exits in the ensuing panic, officials said.
The blaze in the university town of Santa Maria was started by a band member or someone from its production team igniting a flare, which then set fire to the ceiling, said Luiza Sousa, a civil police official. The fire spread "in seconds," she said.
Local fire officials said at least one exit was locked and that bouncers, who at first thought those fleeing were trying to skip out on bar tabs, initially blocked patrons from leaving. The security staff relented only when they saw flames engulfing the ceiling.
The vast majority of the victims, most of them university students, died from asphyxiation, officials said. Others were crushed in the stampede.
"We ran into a barrier of the dead at the building's exit," Colonel Guido Pedroso de Melo, commander of the Santa Maria fire squad, said of the scene firefighters found on arrival. "We had to clear a path to get to the rest of those that were inside."
An estimated 500 people were in the Boate Kiss nightclub when the fire broke out at around 2:30 a.m., police said. Witnesses said the club, which has a 2,000-person capacity, was always busy on weekends but wasn't any more crowded than usual.
The death tally was lowered slightly, with police saying at midafternoon that 232 people had been killed, down from an initial figure of 245.
When the fire began, many revelers were unable to find their way out amid the chaos, confusing restroom doors for exits and finding resistance from bouncers when they did find an exit door.
"It all happened so fast," survivor Taynne Vendrusculo told GloboNews TV. "Both the panic and the fire spread rapidly, in seconds."
Once security guards realized the building was on fire, they tried in vain to control the blaze with a fire extinguisher, according to a televised interview with one of the guards, Rodrigo Moura. He said patrons were getting trampled as they rushed for the doors, describing it as "a horror film."
Television footage showed people sobbing outside the club before dawn, while shirtless firefighters used sledge hammers and axes to knock down an exterior wall to open up an exit.
SAFETY STANDARDS IN SPOTLIGHT
Rescue officials moved the bodies to a local gymnasium, where the deceased were segregated by gender. Male victims were easier to identify, they said, because most of them, unlike the women, whose purses were left scattered in the devastated nightclub, had identification on them.
One of the club's owners had already surrendered to police for questioning, GloboNews reported.
President Dilma Rousseff, who started her political career in the Rio Grande do Sul state where the fire happened, cut short a visit to Chile to return to visit the scene. Before leaving Chile, she broke out in tears as she pledged government help for the victims and their families.
"We are trying to mobilize all possible resources to help in the rescue efforts," Rousseff said. "All I can say at the moment is that my feelings are of deep sorrow."
The disaster recalls other incidents including a 2003 fire at a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that killed 100, and a Buenos Aires nightclub blaze in 2004 that killed nearly 200. In both incidents, a band or members of the audience ignited fires that set the establishment ablaze.
Brazil's safety standards and emergency response capabilities are under particular scrutiny as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics.
Santa Maria, with a population of more than 275,000, is about 186 miles (300 km) west of the state capital of Porto Alegre.
Rio Grande do Sul state's health secretary, Ciro Simoni, said emergency medical supplies from all over the state were being sent to the scene.
(Additional reporting by Guillermo Parra-Bernal, Gustavo Bonato, Jeferson Ribeiro, Eduardo Simões and Brian Winter; Writing by Paulo Prada; Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Eric Beech)
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