SANTA MARIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Prosecutors in southern Brazil, where 235 people died when a fire ravaged a nightclub in Santa Maria last weekend, are investigating whether city leaders and inspectors were negligent in allowing the club to operate.
The investigation, which is separate from a criminal probe into the causes of the tragedy, comes after police said the club’s sole exit was partially blocked and that fire extinguishers and emergency exit lights weren’t working.
Investigators say the lapses led to the stampede and subsequent trampling and suffocation that killed most of the fire’s victims in the nightclub, called Kiss.
“There is a political dimension to what happened,” Cesar Augusto Carlan, a public prosecutor for the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the fire occurred, said in an interview on Wednesday.
He said the investigation sought to determine what fault may lie with the city, fire inspectors and any other enforcement officials who had allowed the nightclub to operate.
Police officials have already begun laying some of the blame on local authorities and an overall culture of lax enforcement in Brazil.
“What we can tell, empirically, is that everything is out of order,” said Marcelo Arigony, the police chief in Santa Maria, in a Wednesday interview. “The question of the permit, inspection by the fire department, all of that is the responsibility of local administration.”
“And it’s not just here, it’s Brazil,” he added, noting the rampant violations uncovered in recent days as local officials nationwide sought to crack down on irregularities at nightclubs and other venues in the fire’s aftermath.
In a news conference late Tuesday, Santa Maria Mayor Cesar Schirmer said city inspectors visited the Kiss nightclub in April after it had undergone remodeling and found no reason to revoke its operating permit.
He said his mind was “at ease” that city hall had “fulfilled its obligation.”
Schirmer added: “The establishment, in our view, had no irregularities. If any measures or inspections should have been taken, that was the responsibility of the fire department.”
The local fire department, for its part, reiterated in a statement late Tuesday that it was in the process of renewing the club’s safety permit when the fire occurred, but that the establishment was authorized to operate in the meantime.
It added, however, that the club appears to have committed several safety violations, noting that it did not have a permit allowing the pyrotechnics that sparked the fire and that regulations required the exit to be unobstructed, which wasn’t the case.
“If there had been a request to use pyrotechnics in the nightclub Kiss, the fire department would not have authorized it,” the statement read.
Further details of the tragedy continue to emerge.
Police said one of the club’s owners, who with his co-owner is in police custody for questioning, on Tuesday tried to choke himself with a shower hose at a local hospital in a suicide attempt. The owner, identified by police as Elissandro Spohr, told officials he could not bear the strain of the tragedy.
In addition to the two club owners, two members of Gurizada Fandangueira, the band that was performing at the club, also are in custody for questioning. One of the band members, police say, lit an outdoor flare during the show, igniting overhead soundproofing material from which the fire rapidly spread.
Arigony, the police chief, in the interview said the investigation would still take weeks, but that criminal charges are sure to follow. The musician who lit the flare, he said, will face at least a charge of manslaughter.
Local authorities have revised the death toll from the tragedy to 235, following the death of an injured man in hospital and a recount of the confirmed dead. As of Wednesday afternoon, 140 people remained in hospitals, more than half of them on respirators.
Some of those being treated are suffering complications from the toxic chemicals inhaled during the fire.
Writing by Paulo Prada; Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman