Brazil mourns Santa Maria nightclub fire victims

The BBC's Gary Duffy says there is a sense of national shock in Brazil

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Brazil has declared three days of national mourning for 231 people killed in a nightclub fire in the southern city of Santa Maria.

The fire reportedly started after a member of a band playing at the Kiss nightclub lit a flare on stage.

Authorities say most of the victims were students who died of smoke inhalation. The first funerals took place place on Monday morning.

Three people were arrested over the fire, unconfirmed local reports said.

Police on Monday arrested two musicians from the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, and one of the club's owners, the website of the Diario de Santa Maria newspaper reported. A fourth person was being sought, the paper said.

The fire is the deadliest in Brazil in five decades.

The BBC's Gary Duffy reports from Sao Paulo that the national sense of loss is profound.

At the scene

The local gym has been turned into a makeshift morgue and is being called The Room of Despair.

That is where a few hours ago, the mobile phones of the victims could be heard ringing with no-one to answer them, and where, later on, family members identified their loved ones.

It is not only dozens of doctors and psychologists who have volunteered to help in Santa Maria, but also the local people who are displaying a tremendous sense of solidarity.

They are offering the victims' relatives - who have arrived from other towns - and volunteers free accommodation and food.

Some are walking around, carrying trays with food, fruit and biscuits. Others have offered to clean the gym's toilets as the last bodies await burial.

Brazil postponed a ceremony due on Monday in the capital, Brasilia, to mark 500 days to the 2014 football World Cup. In Santa Maria, 30 days of mourning were declared.

President Dilma Rousseff, who cut short a visit to Chile, has been visiting survivors at the city's Caridade hospital along with government ministers.

"It is a tragedy for all of us," she said.

Authorities have released the names of the victims, after revising down the death toll from 245.

More than 100 people were being treated in hospital, mostly for smoke inhalation.

Officials will now investigate reports that a flare was lit on stage, igniting foam insulation material on the ceiling and releasing toxic smoke.

They will also look at claims that many of those who died were unable to escape as only one emergency exit was available.

'Dark, heavy smoke'

The fire broke out as students from the city's federal university (UFSM) were holding a freshers' ball, the Diario de Santa Maria, a local newspaper, reported.

A local journalist, Marcelo Gonzatto, told the BBC that the flare had "started a huge and fast fire that grew quickly and made a very dark and heavy smoke."

Eyewitness - Fernanda Bona

"I am the official photographer at the club and I was taking photos of people. I was watching a band on stage and the fireworks.

I was in the VIP area and I could see the whole club. The area was close to the exit. I saw the fire going through the club.

People were screaming 'fire, fire' and to run. People were scared and were running everywhere.

I ran as quickly as I could to the door of the street. But it was hard to get out because there were so many people.

It took a few minutes for me to get out of the club. I know people who are in hospital or who are missing. A lot of people died from not so much the fire but the toxic smoke."

"Lots of people couldn't get out and died mainly because of the smoke not the fire," he said.

Witnesses spoke of scenes of panic after the fire started, and a stampede as people tried to escape.

One, Mattheus Bortolotto, told local television: "It was sheer horror. The emergency exits did not work, and then I lost my friend in the confusion. Then a girl died in my arms. I felt her heart stop beating."

A large number of victims were trapped in the club's toilets, they said, possibly after mistaking them for an exit.

Survivors and police inspector Marcelo Arigony said security guards briefly tried to block people from leaving the club, the Associated Press news agency reported. Bars in Brazil commonly make customers pay their whole tab at the end of an evening before they are allowed to leave.

One of the owners of the club is reported to have confirmed that they were in the process of renewing its licence to operate, and that its fire safety certificate had expired last year.

He is said to have received threats on the internet - in addition to surviving members of the band that was performing on stage when the blaze started.

Its guitarist, Rodrigo Martins, told local radio: "It might have happened because of the Sputnik, the machine we use to create a luminous effect with sparks.

"It's harmless; we never had any trouble with it. When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher. The singer tried to use it but it wasn't working."

He said the band's accordion player had died in the fire.

Brazilian broadcaster Globo said most of the victims were aged between 16 and 20.

A temporary morgue was set up in a local gym as the city's main morgue was unable to cope.

Family members came to identify the dead, led in one by one to see the bodies, Diario de Santa Maria reported.

Map of the location

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