A fire tore through a crowded Brazilian nightclub early Sunday, killing hundreds, as patrons fought to escape from the building’s few exits. Brazilian officials announced that 232 bodies were recovered from Boate Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, out of 1,000 to 2,000 people in attendance. The fire is believed to have started when the band onstage began using flares, one of which set the soundproofed ceiling on fire.
“The toxic smoke made people lose their sense of direction, so they were unable to find their way to the exit,” Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the nearby Federal University of Santa Maria, told the Associated Press. “At least 50 bodies were found inside a bathroom. Apparently they confused the bathroom door with the exit door.
“In the hospital I saw desperate friends and relatives walking and running down the corridors looking for information. It was one of the saddest scenes I have ever witnessed,” he added.
Beltrame reported that the majority of the victims suffocated inside of the club. When the fire broke out around 2:30 a.m., bouncers blocked at least one the exits, believing attendees were trying to skip out on bar tabs. As the flames rose they began evacuating guests, the AP reports. Individuals who escaped began using sledgehammers and axes to assist police and firefighters rescue others.
The blaze was the world’s deadliest nightclub fire in more than a decade. President Dilma Rousseff cancelled the rest of her visit to Chile to return to Brazil. She promised government support for those affected by the tragedy.
“We are trying to mobilize all possible resources to help in the rescue efforts,” Rousseff said, according to Reuters. “All I can say at the moment is that my feelings are of deep sorrow.”